This past week, we have had yet one more shooting tragedy on a college campus. Unfortunately, the shooting at FSU will not be the last time we question the senselessness of such tragic events.
In the words of a friend of mine . . . sometimes the world just seems like it is upside down.
If you have a student in college right now, you know what I'm talking about.
When I got a text from my son (who is a sophomore at the University of Arkansas) at 2am last Thursday, he was telling me about what was happening in Florida. His cousin Sara, attends FSU and he was concerned for her and other students.
I just can't imagine the call other parents received who actually HAVE students at FSU.
So bone-chilling scary.
Now that we are a few days past the event, there are parents with students who were on that campus, who are now struggling with how to help their son or daughter emotionally heal.
When someone is struggling with a trauma like this, here is what I recommend:
1. Listen and don't interrupt to try and make them feel better: For all of us, there is way more conversation going on inside our heads that doesn't come out our mouths. In an effort to be "strong", or "brave", there is a tendency for some to not want to bother you with the emotionally fueled details. That is especially true if what they are feeling and thinking is traumatic.
When someone has experienced a trauma, it is important to get the trauma out. I think of it like it is a toxic substance that, left under wraps, could eat the person alive - at least emotionally. Talking about the details and the trauma with someone who cares about you is healing. It can slow down the rumination and obsessiveness which can stoke even more trauma. It's part of healing to get the trauma outside of you and begin to see that you are not defined by the trauma.
It happened to you. The trauma isn't you.
2. Be Empathetic (not Sympathetic): These two are not the same. Empathy is much more powerful and healing. Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. The author of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, Ph.D. writes a lot about the difference.
Here is a video that is under 3 minutes that will help you immediately know how to express empathy to someone you care about.
3. Talk about the heroes, not just the tragedy and loss: By talking about the heroes, we create a climate of survival and strength. There are always heroes and stories of survival that surface when tragic events happen. While hearing about the fear, also focus on the actions of the heroes to remind them and others that we are not alone. Heroes are the result of hopefulness and strength - both important components of healing.
4. Help them see that more is the same than is different: Especially soon after a tragedy, it can feel like the whole world really is upside down. The reality is that more is the same than is different. At FSU, it is significant that classes were still held on the campus the next day. That is what should happen.
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, it was important that the students be provided with another building where they could hold classes and be together and have the teachers teach. It is not sweeping anything under the rug. By continuing to participate in life, it is another way to not be defined by the tragedy. It is the best way to be reminded that more is the same than is different.
5. Watch for signs of clinical depression: It is expected that fear, sadness, shock and forms of panic are going to be a part of any tragedy in the aftermath. It is a form of grieving. It is what the symptoms look like as more time passes that is significant. In time, do the symptoms interfere with daily living? Is the person experiencing more good days than bad? Are there signs of clinical depression?
Click here to learn more about the difference between situational depression and clinical depression. The biggest thing I want to know, when helping to determine a person's coping after a tragedy, is what they were like emotionally prior to the tragedy. Is this a person who has poor coping skills in general? Were there symptoms of clinical depression prior to the event? The best predictor of future coping can be their coping with setbacks, disappointments and loss prior. For some people, this may be what finally gets them to get help for their overall emotional healing.
I'm biased. I think going to therapy is a sign of strength. Healthy people go to therapy . . . and as a Psychologist, my job is to work myself out of a job - not create an emotional dependency. Therapy is helpful when the person learns additional coping strategies for fear, sadness, and loss. The goal of therapy is to increase their daily functioning. The goal isn't to just talk about your mother.
6. Finally, it is important to take any outcry of suicide seriously: It goes without saying that those who were already depressed may need more help after experiencing a tragedy like just happened at FSU. Here is a resource if you need it to know what to do if the possibility of someone committing suicide is a concern.
This world can be a scary place and it is hard to watch someone you care about try and cope with that. We all can make a difference in someone's life by helping him or her emotionally cope with a tragedy . . . even though it would be our first choice to try and protect.
Until next time,
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