Finding a New Normal: What to Expect When Tragedy Strikes

hopeIt’s that one phone call you wish you didn’t answer. It’s that doorbell you wish hadn’t rang. It’s that moment you wish your life hadn’t been flipped upside down. I’m talking about those instances when you realize that your life is no longer the same.

There are so many things that can make our lives seem unrecognizable. From natural disasters to sudden deaths; from a terrifying diagnosis to a near-death experience, these are the realities of life. It may not have happened to you yet, but it most likely has happened to someone you know. Those are the tough moments. What do you say when your best friend, brother, dad, aunt, endures something so terrifying? Even more difficult to answer, what do you do when it happens to you?

It’s hard to know what the right to say to someone who just lost a loved one. It’s sometimes easier to not say anything at all than it is to try to form the words (Please tell me I’m not alone in this!). This is the idea I’m getting at for today’s post. It was inspired by an article from the New York Times called The Art of Presence, which was actually inspired by another post A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma. The latter piece comes from a woman, Catherine Woodiwiss, who has experienced a great deal of trauma herself. Her sister died after being thrown off a horse in 2008 in Afghanistan. And just last year, she was hit by a car and now must undergo a series of operations. Needless to say, this is a woman who knows a thing or two about tragedy. She writes,

“After a handful of traumas in the last five years, things look different now. Trauma upends everything we took for granted, including things we didn’t know we took for granted. And many of these realities I wish I’d known when I first encountered them.”

Catherine goes on to list several things that she’s learned along the way, including:

  • There is no “getting over it.”

To some people on the outside of tragedy, you may just want to say, “get over it.” However, there is no getting over a death or a crisis. What you do is you get THROUGH it. There is never a moment where that instant your life changed doesn’t live with you – either consciously or subconsciously. It has changed you, but the question is what meaning will it take for you in the future? It doesn’t have to take on a negative feeling the rest of your life. As Catherine states,

“This is not a wholly negative thing. Healing from trauma can also mean finding new strength and joy. The goal of healing is not a papering-over of changes in an effort to preserve or present things as normal. It is to acknowledge and wear your new life — warts, wisdom, and all — with courage.”

  • Presence is better than distance

Anyone whose witnessed other people’s tragedy knows all about this. I’m talking about those moments where you pick up the phone to call or text your friend, but don’t know what to say. Or those moments where you say “they need their space.” Instead of just saying something simple, you try to say something profound or you overthink it, and in the end, you don’t send it.

The truth is that they need you and we need each other. Your friend doesn’t need you to fix it, they need to know that you will be there for them. They don’t need you to give some lecture – they need to know that when they’re ready to talk, you’ll listen. Catherine states that

“It is a much lighter burden to say, “Thanks for your love, but please go away,” than to say, “I was hurting and no one cared for me.” If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence.”

  • Healing is not a linear process

There is no easy way to predict how and when you will be healed – if there ever is that magical point. Sometimes it’s 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Sometimes it’s 1 step forward, 2 steps back. David and Francine Wheeler who lost their son Ben Wheeler during the Sandy Hook tragedy said it best. When talking about how they feel about being in certain situations, they said that there are moments where they expect to go out and have a good time, and they just cannot handle it. And then there are other moments where they expect a situation to bring up a lot of anxiety, sadness, and grief, but in the end, it brings a great deal of joy, peace, and healing. It’s hard to say what any given situation will bring, but you have to be ready for the fact there’s not such thing as making a beeline for healing. There will be road blocks and that’s ok.

  • Grieving and healing are social

As human beings, we are wired for contact and connectedness. Catherine states that trauma is a lonely event in and of itself, so to go through it without anybody else, is unbearable. It’s not always easy to ask for help or to reach out to people. It takes a lot of courage, but that courage will bring you closer to healing.

  • Do not offer platitudes or comparisons

This reminds me so much of what Dr. Brené Brown talks about in regards to the difference between empathy vs. sympathy. Most people don’t want to hear “It’ll get better” or “It was meant to be” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s natural to want to say this from the outside. I have to stop myself from saying it too, but it’s not what anybody would want to hear. Acknowledge where people are before you attempt explaining it all. Validate their experience. Catherine says,

Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while.

  • Allow those suffering to tell their own stories

Each person has their own experience of trauma. You have to be willing to let them go through their individual and specialized process. This was so evident through David and Francine Wheeler who spoke about their experience with this. They found that each of them grieved in their own way. At some points, one would be further along than the other and one would internalize things than the other. And that was all ok because they recognized that they each had to grieve at their own pace. Recognize that each person will go through grief at different rates and may end up in different places. It’s about acceptance.

  • Love shows up in unexpected ways

You never know when a moment of healing is going to come. Someone you haven’t talked to in a while reaches out. A loved one shows up in a way you never expected. You can’t predict how or when, but don’t discount those moments when they do occur.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with something not in the articles I discussed above, but something I’ve heard Dr. Phil say before to a woman whose daughter was murdered: focus on the life lived rather than the moment of the death. It’s so easy to focus on the moment your life changed as a symbolic gesture for all that is happening now, but can you shift your focus to all those wonderful times before?

There are so many times in our life that are so confusing and we spend so much time trying to answer the “why” and “how” of it all. It’s hard to make sense of things. But maybe it’s ok that they don’t make sense for a bit? Maybe we could just put the “why” on the side for now. In the end, your life is now different. Your life from here on out may not be the same, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a new normal for yourself. The question is what is that normal going to be for you? That is your choice.

For some more tips, check out these articles:

Other Related links:

Rubin Khoddam, Clinical Psychology PhD student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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Categories: Articles, Blogs by Rubin

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  1. You are the captain of your plane! « Psych Connection
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