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Ask Michael: Coping with tragedy
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Ask Michael: Coping with tragedy

by Michael Raitt - SGN Contributing Writer

Last week, I read with anger and sadness about the horrific and violent death of Teresa Butz and the vicious attack on her partner. Currently, police are reporting that this was a random crime. There is speculation that the crime might have been motivated by hate. No matter what legal classification this crime falls under, it is horrific and impacts many people.

First, I'd like to extend my deepest sympathies to Ms. Butz's partner, family, and loved ones. Although I do not know any of them, I can barely imagine the grief and horror that has been visited upon them.

Most of you will never have to experience the horror that Ms. Butz, her partner, family, and friends experienced or are facing now and in the future. It is likely, however, that some of you will be faced with an unexpected death of a loved one or some kind of violence or random event that will turn your life upside down.

How do we cope when life has hoisted upon us the unexpected death of a loved one or violence towards us as individuals or someone we know?

Different people react in different ways. This is obvious, yet important because we have to make room and have tolerance and patience for people to process these kinds of events in their own way. Sometimes we think we have to act a certain way or that we have to "get over it" sooner than we are ready to. Some people compare and judge their reactions to the reactions of others. There are a myriad of reasons for why we respond the way we do. One thing is clear: when we are faced with these kinds of tragedies, we have to deal with them.

Clearly, many people get sad when something tragic happens. Sadness usually comes with feelings of depression, crying, or withdrawal. People may have changes in eating, sleep, or concentration patterns. Sometimes people feel guilty about having good times or feeling happy during times of emotional distress or grief or when they are "supposed" to feel sad.

Often with sadness comes the playing of situations, scenarios, or conversations again and again through one's mind, trying to make sense of what has happened. Sometimes people want to forget, and sometimes they fear they are being annoying or bothersome to other friends when they talk about it. All of this is very normal. Don't criticize yourself for these feeling or reactions.

A huge reaction that people often have to unexpected tragic events is rage, yet it is the least recognized emotion, and the one that is least desired. Rage is a complicated emotion and there are many cultural norms around it. As a society, we often frown upon feelings of rage especially when they are tied to sad events such as the death of a loved one. Normal people don't like to experience rage because it brings up feelings of being out of control or inappropriate.

When people are very angry - rageful - they often feel guilty about their rage. They think they shouldn't feel that way. They may have rage towards the perpetrator of the crime, which is understandable and socially acceptable. This feeling gets complicated when the rage is about the loved one who has died or their God (however each individual defines that entity) who has "allowed" the tragic event to happen.

People may get messages from others that the rage they are experiencing is inappropriate. This confuses people and shames them and they end up working tirelessly to deny and suppress their rage. Over time, this suppressed rage will be harmful to the individual carrying it.

Here are some things to do to help cope when an unexpected tragedy comes into your life.

First, recognize that you get to deal with it on your time. Some people take longer than others and some of us do it in fits and spurts. It is not uncommon for people to resume a level of functioning (work, relationships, commitments) and still be processing the events months or years down the road. You may need professional help in dealing with the event if it is having too much negative impact in your day-to-day functioning. This is different, however, than "getting over it."

Time does not heal all wounds! I know plenty of people who have experienced tragedies and suppressed them and are still suffering 30 years later. They won't admit it, but that is what is happening. Each individual has to deal with their own experiences in ways that are meaningful to them and then, over time, they will heal, but they won't forget. You have to deal with it.

If you are a friend or loved one supporting another, be patient. You don't have to do anything but lend an ear. Most of us realize that no one can do anything for us when we are feeling what we are feeling. We just need an ear or space to blow off steam, a shoulder to cry on, or someone to laugh with. Most anyone can do this.

Second, realize that outrage at a violent act or the death of a loved one is normal! It is part of the emotional process that many people have to go through to cope with what has happened in their lives. People can get a great deal of relief when they process their rage. Never allow a professional or clergymember to tell you that your rage is inappropriate. Find someone who will help you deal with your intense feelings in ways that support you. Obviously, I don't want you taking your rage out and inflicting it on others and causing more pain and suffering. Likewise, I don't want you carrying all that rage to your own detriment.

Finally, even though you may have sadness, grief, or rage, make plans to re-engage with your life. Make yourself do things that you enjoy. Let friends take you out or plan a party or a trip. There is no guilt in laughing or having fun again - even in the shadow of a horrible event.

There is a quote I love and it reads, "God's language is the language of chaos" (forgive me, I don't remember the author's name so I can't give due credit). To me, this means that things just happen, and there is no way to explain them or justify them or understand them. They just happen. It is hard to make peace with this. This is often the final task we are left with when dealing with tragedy.

Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at askingmichael@comcast.net.

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