What To Do For Yourself
After a Community Disaster

Copyright Cat Chapin-Bishop, 2001 
Permission to distribute this article is given on the condition that this copyright and authorship information is retained.

What To Do:

  • Spend time with friends, especially friends who can relate to the tragedy in the same way you can. If you are a healer, spending time with other healers is helpful. If you have lost a member of your family, spending time with your surviving family or with others with similar losses will usually be most useful. And spending time with others who share your spiritual vision can be very healing.
  • Do talk about your feelings—and your memories of the day, where you heard the news, what happened next, and so on. Though talk may seem like a small tool for a big task, in reality, the social contact of words is part of how human beings come to terms with trauma. Words do matter.
  • Learn about trauma and grief. Reading about what you can expect in yourself and in your community can be very valuable, both as information and validation. Good online resources for more information include:
  • Journal, do artwork, create ritual. All forms of expression of your experience are valuable healing tools. Though talking about trauma may be the most helpful thing to do, all forms of expression are good.
  • Work for peace and healing. Prayer, spellwork, and work with deities around creating peace and healing in the world will also promote those qualities in you, and in your world.
  • Let yourself cry, but don’t judge yourself if you don’t. The average crying jag lasts for less than 10 minutes—it only feels like forever. Additionally, some folks who have experienced a direct loss of life in their families may feel that crying dishonors the dead in some way—or that a lack of tears does. Neither is true. All of us are more or less prone to tears, and even someone who normally cries easily may find themselves unable to shed tears in a time of crushing loss. This is just the way it is to be human.
  • Be accepting of differences of opinion. It’s not unusual for communities to be riven with conflicts, not immediately after a disaster, but in the weeks and months which follow, as diverging styles of coping become evident. After the Oklahoma City disaster, for instance, differences of opinion on whether or not to rebuild on the site of the Federal Building, or on the appropriateness of the death penalty after the conviction of Timothy McVeigh, threatened the community solidarity that had been so important to so many. Accept that important differences of opinion will happen, and make room for others to accept one another’s feelings and diverging coping styles where you can.
  • Schedule time for fun. Don’t spend all your time ruminating on the disaster. If you find yourself shutting down to others emotionally, or becoming more anxious or irritable, take a break! If you’ve gone more than a day without some down time, take some: watch a silly movie, read a book unrelated to trauma, or go frolic with a dog in the park.
  • Ground. Trauma and grief, or exposure to the trauma and grief of others tend to promote dissociated states, and have a unique and terrible energy. Many people feel unreal, out of body, or detached from those they normally are close to, and this detachment, unchecked, can hinder the healing process. Ungrounded traumatic energy can lead to increased irritability and anxiety, and compound the difficulties you may be having. So remember to:
    • Eat regular meals. Even if you have little appetite, eat at least a cracker, and some tea. Your body will regulate its cycles better if you manage regular food intake. And food is a traditional and effective way of grounding. (Remember that salty foods, as well as richer foods, including those high in protein and fat, are especially grounding. If you can eat well, do.)
    • Spend time in nature. Sit on the earth, lie down beside a river or stream, walk in the woods. Let the earth heal you.
    • If you are psychically sensitive, remember to sleep during the nighttime and be active during the daytime. This is a bad time to be psychically open during the hours when most people in pain will be awake and putting out their distress---try to keep regular sleeping hours. Also, sunlight itself tends to screen out strong painful psychic signals, and the more of it you get every day, the better it will be.
    • Sleep with an open container of water next to your bed. Pour the water onto the earth in the morning.
    • Keep a vial of salt with you, and when you need a little psychic dampening, pour some into your palms.
What not to do:
  • Don’t overwork! The temptation to bury yourself in activity is strong, but it will delay your healing. Keep it simple. Slow down. Do less. Try to avoid scheduling multiple activities in any given day. Even when you are not aware of your emotions, your body is trying to struggle with the chemistry of grief and trauma, and overwork and overcommitment will not help. You are working harder than you know, and that remains true if your only trauma has been the vicarious traumatization of media exposure and supporting others.
  • Don’t watch TV. Yeah, I know, but do it. Really. You’re not doing any good engraving those images deeper and deeper into your mind, and the energy that is currently going into coping with the retraumatization of the endless news coverage is better spent caring for yourself, your family, or your coven. Just turn it off—you can find out what’s happening just as well from the paper. (And if you have kids in the house, they really don’t need to be subjected to these images all day and night.)
  • Avoid drugs or alcohol. Many people experience problems with anxiety, depression, or sleep in the aftermath of a tragedy. Some try to self-medicate for these conditions with recreational drugs or alcohol. Not only does this increase the risk of addiction, but also the use of these substances will slow the beginning of the real healing, in some cases for many months. Pot, sleeping pills, alcohol and other drugs can all put you at higher risk for both complicated mourning and PTSD.
  • Avoid conflicts. It is entirely normal for people to experience increased levels of irritability after a trauma or while in grief. Add to that the potential for competitive mourning, and the exacerbation of preexisting traumatic or bereavement wounds, and the stage is set for world-class destructive infighting in our communities. As clergy, try to turn aside conflicts. As humans, try not to enter into them. Give it a month or more before you allow yourself to trust that the anger you feel at your sister is really at her, and not at the universe.
  • Avoid major decisions. Generally speaking, everyone touched by a disaster will have some subtle or major responses that will interfere with judgement for two to four weeks afterwards. People who were physically present, or had particular reason to be affected, can expect this period to last much longer—three to six months is not unheard of. And those who directly suffer the death of a family member of close friend will find that, for a period of one to two years, they will experience significant disruption of their normal coping styles. (Family members of those who die by violence can expect an even longer process, and should probably seek out professional help from the beginning in order to make the best adjustment possible.) So go slow. Give yourself time to heal.
When To Seek Out Professional Help:

Some trauma and bereavement symptoms are more worrisome than others. The help of a group for other survivors, or of a professional therapist trained in bereavement or trauma counseling can be a great help, and the good news is that most critical incident counseling can be brief and still be very effective. Most counseling for these issues need not be long term, though some will find that a return for counseling on anniversary dates or holidays is important for some years to come.

Signs that someone might need specialized help in resolving their trauma include:

  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Sleep disturbances that last longer than 2-4 weeks.
  • Panic attacks without clear triggers, or that interfere with the ability to leave your home.
  • Flashbacks that interfere with daily routines, particularly beyond the first 2-4 weeks.
  • Estrangement from friends and family; feeling alienated and isolated from most previously close relationships. (Some changes in relationships and closeness are normal after a disaster—long-lasting, severe, or global changes in all relationships are signs of trouble.)
  • Feeling numb, unreal, or noticeably without emotions (good or bad) beyond the first 2-4 weeks.
  • Any suicidal urges or attempts.
In addition, anyone with a known history of trauma or recent bereavement should probably consider checking in with a therapist for at least a brief "booster shot" of counseling if they are not currently seeing a therapist, and should make a point of discussing their responses to the disaster in counseling if they do have a therapist already.

         Cat Chapin-Bishop now teaches English in Middle School. She blogs at Chestnut House and at Quaker Pagan Reflections.                  
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