Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I'm late on this. I don't watch TV and I don't read newspapers (even online), so I'm always at least 24 hours behind on this sort of thing. I also lived in Littleton in 1999, with teenage children at school less than a mile away from Columbine High. This is an especially emotional topic for me. I don't think anything useful can be said about this tragedy, nothing political, nothing philosophical. Not now, not ever.

So I'll reprint (with permission) the only actually useful thing that anyone's said concerning this tragedy.



Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Each person, depending on their innate physical and emotional constitution, is affected differently by sudden shocks and catastrophic events. Symptoms of having been shocked may differ also. Thus, over a period of time, if you of the inner circle, that is, an eye-witness, a victim, or a survivor, or a person who lost a loved one, or had a loved one seriously injured, or other close-in relationship, you may find yourself having one or more of the following reactions. These are normal reactions to sudden shock. When one has been involved in a critical incident, the body, mind and heart, and some believe too that the spirit and soul, are shocked as well. The most time-tested remedies in my clinical work in post-trauma recovery are outlined right after this list of reactions:

Physical Reactions:
o Sleep disturbances including inability to sleep
o Lethargy, such as sleeping too much
o Exhaustion, fatigue
o Changes in appetite, digestive disturbances
o Feeling numb
o Crying
o Desire to comfort and be comforted physically
o Nightmares, night terrors
o Loss of memory
o Trembling, inner or outer
o Nausea
o Heart arrhythmia
o Pain in heart, not an organic disorder, but caused by sorrow
o Aching bones, not an organic disorder but caused by sorrow
o Headache, migraine

Behavioral Reactions:
o Hyperactivity
o Poor concentration
o Refusing to talk
o Startle reactions while awake or asleep
o Isolating, wanting to be alone.
o Wanting to just sit, or just stare
o Trying to help in any way one can, to the point of exhaustion
o Hyper-vigilance, watching, listening, being unable to be at rest

Psychological Reactions:
o Loss of sense of time
o Feeling distraught and helpless
o Feeling that things are not real, as though in a dream
o Inability to recall sequences or trace all of one’s steps
o Feeling the future has been lost forever
o Desire to comfort and be comforted psychologically
o Feeling one should not cry
o Wanting to scream or screaming-weeping
o Inability to attach importance to anything but this event
o Flashbacks
o Nightmares
o Intrusive thoughts
o Over-reactions to mild to moderate irritations
o Recurrent dreams
o Horrified Anger
o Broken Heart
o Insecurity about the future
o Feelings of fear
o Feelings of guilt
o Feeling one cannot stop crying
o Blaming of others, individuals, groups, passionate outbursts
o Marked frustration with how long everything takes
o Marked frustration with rescue workers, the bureaucracy, anyone who tries to help
o Marked Frustration with any who break promises to help, or who are perceived to not be telling all the truth, or who are perceived to be withholding critical information, or who are giving out platitudes or being condescending
o Ongoing violent fantasies
o Anxiety
o Mild to profound depression
o Amnesia
o Thinking no one can ever understand, no one can ever help.
o Keeping secrets about what one might have known beforehand
o Blaming oneself.
o Deep dread about hearing any more terrible news.

Spiritual reactions
o Desire to comfort and be comforted spiritually
o Questioning God, being angry with God
o Not wanting to hear any spiritual counsel
o Wanting very much to hear spiritual counsel
o Praying non-stop
o Feeling God has abandoned everyone

These are normal reactions, and they can be painful. And going through them, trying to pinpoint each and find ease for each, is part of the direct healing process. No one can instantly cleanse these thoughts and feelings, though I wish we could, for I know they can tear at the heart, mind, soul and spirit. For some persons, after tragedy, they know immediately what they think and feel. For others who are numbed, they not know where and how they stand with the events and with themselves for weeks and months afterward. Being thoughtful and watchful of one’s own processes is a good endeavor, and to take steps to help oneself as, and if, needed.

For those close in to the tragedy, the numbness you feel is your psyche protecting you, taking away for a time, the profound overwhelm of all that has occurred. For the first days after such enormous shocks, it may almost feel as though time has stopped. As though you are no longer here. As though maybe you are dead too. This is because horror and tragedy throw us into a process and lock us in for a time. For most who have suddenly lost a beloved person, ‘a descent’ is not too strong a word for the process. To many, it feels like a big iron gate has closed behind them and that life will never be the same again.

There is an indirect healing process that takes place underground at the same time, and that is that time passing is a great healer too. Time is the indirect healing partner. As time goes on, there is also blessing news… and that is, that grief is a process that has a beginning, a middle and not exactly an end, but a release from that trapped place where you may have felt burdened relentlessly. Eventually that eases and dwindles. You will daily live and laugh and love life again, more and more … it will happen.

As time goes on, less and less, and with longer and longer spans of time in between, will you be taken backward in time to very briefly, but deeply, grieve anew. For most of us, we do not ‘get over’ such heart-wrenching events. We learn to live with them. We learn to live with the aftermath of irretrievable loss. We learn to live with losses that feel they took our souls from us and our desire to live life as well. But the innate life force is ever sending out strong impulse to live again, and it will help us see meaning, and new calling in life sometimes too, as we gradually climb back up to vital and vibrant life in every way.

Please take up all, or any of the following ways to help yourself and know too, that many many strangers, as well as those close to you, are focusing in this very moment on supporting you over the miles, saying strong and ongoing fresh prayers for your hearts and souls to find their ways and to be made whole again.

o Within the first 24 72 hours, do strenuous exercise alternating with relaxation. Continue to move daily thereafter. This will alleviate some of the physical reactions, and give your body a way to discharge additional physical and emotional reactions as they accumulate in the coming days.

o Keep busy, do not sit and do nothing. Feeling displaced, angry, sad and bewildered are normal reactions. Do not tell yourself that you have lost your mind. You haven’t. But it is as though a huge wind has blown through unsetting all order. Order will return. A new order. One you decide as you decide it, in your own best interests.

o Talk to people - talk is one of the most healing things you can do. Tell your story as you see it. Although some have learned to keep their most precious thoughts and feelings to themselves, they may not realize that by talking now, they also give others permission to talk out their thoughts and feelings too… and thus to go that much farther in healing. This may be the first time some persons will receive encouragement to speak. It doesn’t matter whether one’s talk is broken or cohesive… telling one’s own story is what matters. People who have been deeply hurt, may tell their stories over and over again, many times before they lose their massive charge of pain.

o If you can, listen to others’ stories, for sometimes giving comfort is a way to help healing of both teller and listener as well. There are many ways to listen, including being silent together, including a hand on an arm, an arm around a shoulder, an embrace while the other person just leans quietly or weeps. There are too, those inimitable words that the soul understands perfectly, which are not said with voice, but with nods of the head and with the eyes; gentle understanding eyes.

o Don’t allow anyone to push you by insisting, “It’s over now, we have to move on.” In grief, the psyche has entered a deep learning and transformative process. The news media cycle is not your healing cycle. Neither is your drummer any who are not very well developed psychologically, nor those who become understandably fatigued with the ongoing cycles of grief. Listen to yourself and to wise others who have come through a great something themselves, and mostly recovered. It is a paradox and an issue of compassion for self and others: To tend to what is wounded til healed, while going on with new life as well. Yes, ‘life goes on,’ as some will say, but the emphasis should be on Life! not on hurrying. A wound to the spirit and psyche is like a wound to the body. It takes time to heal from the bottom layers upward.

o Feelings of loneliness and deep feelings of longing toward loved ones now gone can be partially mediated by being with those who understand from the ground up, that is, other people, who have gone the way you are going now. Thought it can seem like this never happened to anyone else and you are alone, there are others in the world, on the internet, at certain groups who know exactly what you are experiencing, and they can be of great comfort. Seek it and take it.

o Each time you tell your story, each time you create a symbolic act, each event memorialized, each thoughtful new barrier set to help prevent ever again what tragedy occurred in your world, each time you think back to the tragedy in order to analyze and learn something valuable, each time you receive someone’s caring, each time you reach to comfort others, you will be healing yourself.

o Try not to cover up your feelings by withdrawing or by using alcohol or drugs. Talk your feelings out. As many times as you need to. There is no shame or selfishness in this. You have been through alot. Sometimes after a tragedy, some are inclined to try to self-medicate with whatever is close at hand. But this is not a time of negating. Your psyche is stronger than you know. This time, despite the horror that began it, will be a time that will bring much to you, much that will be useful for the rest of your life.

o Reach out to others. They really do care. Be good to yourself and let others be good to you too. Often, the most healing comes from just allowing others to bless your life anew, and you theirs. I tell the people I meet with who have suffered great tragedies, but who often ask what they can do to help others. I tell them, be kind. People who suffer greatly will most often forget all the words that everyone said during these first days, but what will remain forever engraved in memory, are the kindnesses others offered during those first few days and weeks. Kindness somehow seems recorded by the body, by the mind, the heart, the soul and the spirit; every part of the person registers kindness.

o Spend time with others. Do not isolate yourself. You can find yourself laughing sometimes, even as you grieve. That is not blasphemy: it is the Life Force trying to surface again.

o Ask other people how they are doing. Remember they may be shy to tell a stranger, or even a friend or relative, of their burden unless they are asked, and often more than once in order to gain more of an answer than ‘Fine,” when they are somewhat to a lot less than fine.

o People can become fatigued from this business of grieving. Grieving is hard work and as numbness wears off and the psyche delivers back images and impressions of the original traumatic event, it can burn up much energy. Rest, take good care of your body. Feed it decent food. Soothe and energize the body. It’s alright to take time out. it is not negligent not to want to listen anymore. For now, for a while, or ever. Everyone reaches capacity in the grieving process. Pay attention to what your body and mind need, and secure it. Healing is not a straight line, it is a zig-zag line, sometimes two steps back and three steps forward. Stay with it. There is no one right and perfect way. There is your way. Trust it. Others may offer ideas too. Consider them, take what you need and leave the rest.

o If you find at any time that you feel stuck in endless anger, or want to isolate yourself endlessly, or have unabated anxiety, or continue to be hyper vigilant, have intrusive thought, flashbacks, thoughts of hurting yourself or others, nightmares or other sleep distresses, over-reactions to run of the mill events…. seek professional help.

o It is not a character flaw nor a failure of self hood to seek psychological, physical or spiritual assistance. Understand that severe, sudden shocks to the body and mind can throw off chemicological balances in the body. Sometimes the body needs medicine to help to recover the chemical equilibrium that influences sense of self and sense of ease with the world. Talk therapy with a therapist trained in post-trauma recovery is useful to untangle thought processes that often become jammed by prior pressure to respond to too many sudden and strong stimuli all at once. Therapy is also a place to speak the thoughts you would prefer not to speak more publicly or to friends or family. It also is a place of learning to create new life as you now wish it to be, with insight and vision.

o If you are a parent, help your children by listening, listening. Just because your young adult children are silent, or just because they laugh or go out with friends or say everything is fine, does not mean they are without need of your special regard. The psyche often splits in two during eye-witness sudden trauma. It is a healthy adaptation. One side of one’s nature goes on functionally, while the other part is drowning in bewilderment, helplessness or sorrow. Do not hesitate to gain psychological advice and therapy, both for yourself and your child. Therapy at its best is educative, teaches about how the mind and behavior and spirit actually work together, or don’t, but can, with a few adjustments and conscious good will.

o In the ensuing days, find things to do that feel rewarding or refreshing. These need not be big things, but things to offer some small balances to the tragedy you have been through. It is alright to live fully, even though precious others have died. In fact, it is exactly right to decide to live fully in honor of those who could not. There is to be no guilt for moments of happiness or celebrations. Moments of happiness are, again, the Life Force erupting in your service.

o When you feel bad, find a person to talk to, and to cry with, to tell of your anger and other helpless feelings. Don’t keep it inside. You are vulnerable in these moments; take care to not over-indulge or self-medicate with substances, or other mind-numbing addictions, or trying to lose oneself in unprotected sex.

o If you have had spiritual practices, your spiritual beliefs will definitely help you through. Cleave to them in full. For those who have been dispirited by some inhumane religious person long ago, do not hold yourself away from this kind of healing for your spirit. Instead, consider seeking now people of spirit who love the soul; there are many of them in the world, some in organized religions and some who wander freelance in this wide world. Ally with them. They often have special balm.

o I would just mention this last, also…. for some it is good to develop a category in one’s mind called something like “God’s business,” for some things will never make sense. Evil things are by definition insensible. And some things, some events, some outcomes, will forever only be “God’s business.”

We all wish to be brave and strong in the face of disaster. We all wish to be looked up to for our endurance and our efforts to help others. If you truly care for humanity, be sure to include yourself in their numbers, by giving your own inner feelings and thoughts the voice and the dignity they and you so deeply deserve.

This protocol letter for victims, survivors and witnesses to massacre and disaster, Recovery and Normal Reactions To Sudden Loss, Injury, and Catastrophe; Copyright ©1970, 1999, 2001, 2006, updated 2007, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved, is printed here under Creative Commons License by which author grants permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that the use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety and not altered, added to, or subtracted from, and attributed with author’s name and copyright notice. For other uses, contact copyright holder.

[copied from The Moderate Voice, via skippy—ed.]

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