Caring for Our Communities and Ourselves
When Tragedy Strikes

Copyright, Cat Chapin-Bishop, 2001. 
Permission to redistribute this article is given, so long as copyright information is retained.

There is a Norse Pagan teaching about the disir, the local land-spirits, and their relationship to humanity. This old belief is that these spirits are naturally benevolent, and tend to be helpful to men and women. But, it was said, that changed in any place where blood had deliberately been shed. Where one human had slain another, the disir grew bitter, untrusting, and suspicious of us. When humans have killed one another, the story goes, the very land cries out in pain.

I am writing these words on September 13, 2001, two days after the annihilation of as-yet-uncounted thousands of human beings at the World Trade Center and elsewhere by terrorist piloting hijacked commercial airplanes. Though most of my personal friends are now accounted for and are safe, some are not. With the telephone traffic jam into New York, and the transportation problems still cutting off parts of New York City from others, it’s going to be several days more before most of us hear from all of our loved ones.

I cannot really imagine what the disir of Manhattan must now be experiencing. But I have some idea of what my species is experiencing, in the aftermath of the most appalling terrorist act of all history.

Though I seem not to have personally lost anyone, many of my friends have. Other friends are trying to support coworkers, coven-mates, students, and communities in dealing with terror, grief, and shock. This is my reason for writing: even those of us not directly touched by the soot and ash of Tuesday’s explosions have been touched by this disaster. Even those of us not grieving may be coping with the intrusive imagery of death (repeated over and over on television, so we may be sure of every hideous detail) or may be trying to help others who are. Many who are trying to come to grips with this American tragedy are survivors of childhood violence, or have experienced other forms of trauma or bereavement in our lives—and all the old wounds are in danger of opening, as we see, again and again in our minds, the images of smoke and fear and death. We are a nation in mourning. We are a nation in trauma. And there’s nobody here to heal us but ourselves.

Those of us who are clergy feel a special responsibility to help our communities cope with this catastrophe. High Priestesses and shamans, Druids and teachers and writers, those of us who fill roles of leadership in our religion want to offer something—anything—to put the world back in place. We want to help, and we’re going to do what we can, but it’s important to own up front that we’ll be challenged by our own needs and our own pain in accomplishing this. None of us are entirely separate from the pain of September 11. We won’t be able to extend a hand from anything like a safe distance.

I’m a trauma therapist by trade. I work with men and women who were abused as kids, women who were sexually assaulted as adults, victims of domestic violence, and the families and friends of those who have been murdered. I have done outreach to schools and youth groups, workplaces and homes, courthouses and churches in my work as a trauma therapist… but this is entirely different, partly because today, I do not stand slightly outside the circle of pain, but inside it, with the rest of the American people. There is no distance between New York City and my heart, and I am not unique in this.

So what do we do, we community leaders, clergy and counselors, who want to try to help heal this hole in the heart of the world? Can we do this work and carry our own pain at the same time?

Yeah. Of course. In fact, if we neither hide from it nor judge others in comparison with our own pain (whatever it is) that can be the gate through which we reach others in this time. If we are careful to care for ourselves at the same time we care for each other, our own emotional responses can deepen our empathy. Of course, if we don’t care for ourselves, we risk becoming brittle, dry, and "used up" from caring. We may then make mistakes in our empathy, mishear people’s needs, and hurt both our communities and ourselves. So self-care is mandatory, not optional, as is taking time apart from caregiving to spend with our families, in nature, or having fun. We do owe it to our communities not to let our wells of caring run dry.

What do we need to know in order to care for others, in the midst of caring for ourselves? Many of the same things, of course. Each of us is survivor as well as caregiver today. So the advice we give to others we need to remember to take, ourselves.

But there’s more to know about trauma itself, to have a better chance of helping each other to heal.

Perhaps the most important thing to know is how little it takes to help. We can let ourselves off the hook of thinking we must perpetually do more and more. A phone call, an email, or a visit can make an enormous difference. If we take ten minutes to listen to a friend or a colleague, we have contributed enormously to their experience of the world that day. If we do no more than ask one another, "How are you doing?" and then really listen to the answer, we’ve done enough that some folks will find their eyes filling with tears in response. In the beginning, especially small gestures mean a great deal, and help to reduce the sense of isolation grief and trauma bring. We don’t have to "fix" people’s pain—just keeping them company in it for a little while can be a great gift.

It’s important, too, to understand that trauma has its tidal movement, ebb and flow: together and then, too often, apart. In the first 24 to 72 hours, most traumatized people will try to be near other human beings. I saw some of that the day of the attack itself: teenagers, going home from school, hanging out as usual in the park. One boy even had out a skateboard… But in a park with a dozen benches, and where the daily youth gathering usually sprawls over half of them, all twenty or thirty teens were gathered around a single bench.

Outwardly, there was no sign of grief… but, with the exception of the lone skateboarder, none of the teens was willing to be out of physical contact with the others. In a wide, beautiful park, on a bright, beautiful day, they were packed together, smoking, sprawling, or lying on the ground… in almost total silence.

This tide shifts soon after the trauma, especially for the young, who can hardly bear to feel so intensely, and for those whose lives are committed to action more than to reflection. But sometime after the initial shock has begun to wear away, many people will begin to isolate themselves. Others will find the intense emotions bewildering, and may succumb to anger or other defenses against grief and fear. People begin to ask themselves, "What good will talking about it over and over do?" and sometime in the first few days, many people will begin to shut out others or their own emotions. This shouldn’t be confused with taking breaks from processing emotions: no one can bear the unbearable, uninterrupted, for long. We need to take walks, laugh at funny  movies, do something, anything to lighten our emotions for a while.

The key difference is that, for some folks, this isn’t so much a temporary break in feeling grief and anguish as it is a long-term alienation from feeling anything much at all. To some extent, those who are closest to the catastrophe, who may have experienced a death in their close friendship group or family, must spend some time in numbness. But it’s analogous to a circuit breaker: it’s good to have the protection of shutting down circuits that are threatening to melt, but not-so-good to do without electricity forever.

Feeling and numbness… processing and taking breaks, functioning well and begin triggered into grief or shock… This tidal flow is part of the long-term rhythm of trauma. In the months following a horrific event, as people struggle to make sense of their experience, they may find themselves pulled between two poles of being: overwhelm and numbness. The trouble with trauma is, too often we can neither forget it nor remember it: we alternately experience intrusive mental and physical reminders of the trauma, and avoid all things that might remind us of it to the point where it can interfere profoundly with our lives.

Survivors of sexual assault, for instance, often become either sexually compulsive, engaging in repetitious, joyless sex with multiple partners neither liked nor respected… or become sexually avoidant, even with previously much loved and trusted partners. Sometimes, the same survivor will alternate between the two responses. Or someone may go through long periods of completely losing themselves in their work or in alcohol, or in managing an outward appearance of high-functioning… only to find themselves overwhelmed with periods of irritability, with nightmares or insomnia, or with flashbacks that intrude into waking life. These intrusive trauma symptoms may be triggered by the smallest things: a particular slant of light, the sound of a voice, an innocent noise may suddenly recreate the traumatic event with great force and clarity.

Too often, people feel that there is something wrong with what they are feeling, and judge themselves for it. Sometimes others around them sit in judgement, asking, "why can’t you just get over it?" (Sometimes, of course, those who are asking are trying to avoid having their own responses triggered by those of the person expressing their pain.) Others seem to be functioning "better", and there doesn’t seem to be much validation for what they are experiencing themselves. Better to withdraw, to avoid the subject, to numb out and try to forget about it. So many people develop a resistance to looking at or even thinking about what happened to them.

This can be especially true with the phenomenon known as the disenfranchised mourner. Often, we have been taught to discount our own emotions and needs in the presence of other people who seem to have a better claim to their pain than we do. "I wasn’t there myself," says the cross-town New Yorker who has lost friends and family. "I live in Brooklyn, so I wasn’t affected." Or "I survived," says someone evacuated from the 40th floor, as if the fact of his coworker’s deaths made his own grief and terror less, rather than more. "I was only her friend," says one young woman, "her family is in so much more pain." 

And for those of us who were not present at all, have had no deaths in our families or friend-groups, it seems somehow unseemly, a detraction from the grief and shock of others nearer the event, to have profound emotions about it at all. We have been disenfranchised in our pain — sold on the idea that there is only so much legitimate shock and sorrow to be felt, and we are not entitled to our share. It’s a lie, of course: my grief is not in competition with that of the men and women who are direct mourners this morning. My grief takes nothing away from the rights and respect due others, and this is true even if I am more aware of my emotions than those on the TV screen seem to be of theirs.

Beware comparing our insides to another’s outsides! What shows on TV is not all there may be. And remember this, too: the closer to a catastrophe someone is, the longer their period of shock is likely to last. Many mourners relate having no memory of their children’s funerals, for instance: not because the event wasn’t important to them, but because it happened so quickly, and they were still so numb and robotic in their experience of the world that it was as if they weren’t there.

It is, in fact, in the weeks and months after a tragedy that some of the most harmful results of trauma take shape. True competitive mourning, in which primary mourners judge each others’ grief responses, can begin to divide communities whose unity in the face of tragedy was initially so beautiful to see. For people deal with grief and trauma differently: this one cannot bear to have pictures of the beloved dead on display and must tuck them in a drawer out of sight… that one needs to have reminders in every room. This survivor throws himself into peace work, and that one into the cry for vengeance. In the case of missing persons, as long weeks turn into months and years, some survivors will need to consider the missing as dead, and to others, that will seem like the ultimate betrayal. (And for some, my directness in stating directly the horrible thought that many of those missing will not be found may already be deeply angering. How dare I, from my safe remove here in Massachusetts, speculate about the possible deaths of beloved people I don’t even know? The ease with which our differing response to trauma can drive us apart is so great that even describing it, I may alienate some readers.) We are different in our timetables, typical responses, and in how we approach understanding, let alone accepting, the unacceptable. It’s really no wonder that conflict among mourners is so common once the first few hours of unity of grief begins to pass.

That same sense of betrayal that may cause antagonism toward other mourners may cause self-hatred as well. It’s easy to feel guilty, inadequate, or shamed when we are so helpless to heal those we love best, or to bring back the dead.

All too often, this kind of shame and self-blame goes underground and becomes silent. We need both to be vigilant for it in ourselves, and to help prevent it in others. Invitations to talk in the early days after the tragedy may mean the most; sharing concrete information about common post-traumatic and bereavement responses can mean nearly as much. I vividly remember the story of one fire-fighter who initially had nothing to say to the therapist who did the critical incident debriefing for his department after one horrific event, but who did take the brochure given him home. For the weeks and months that followed, that brochure was his constant companion, and he carried it with him everywhere he went in his wallet, until it was almost unreadable from the many times he’d taken it out, unfolded it, and read it over again. Similarly, condolence notes and letters of support can have a life of their own, walking beside the survivors of tragedy and lighting their way in unforeseen ways.

Don’t be afraid to do the small thing. Try not to feel that you haven’t done enough. Small things are the details that make up a life, or a healing. Remember to credit yourself with the many small things you have done for others, too, and to share your experiences with other caregivers, to help you retain your perspective in a terrible time.

Things to be aware of, in the aftermath of this tragedy:

  • You don’t have to have been a witness to a trauma to have been traumatized.
  • Though the grief and pain of those that directly lost loved ones is unique and enormous, pain is pain. There is no purpose served by comparing one person’s with another’s, or in minimizing your own.
  • There is no wrong way to feel. That includes feeling numb, or actually feeling like you’re handling things fairly well; feeling irritable for no reason; feeling confused; feeling guilt or grief or fear or — most common of all — feeling many mixed  feelings that shift from time to time.
  • Lack of feelings, social withdrawal, sleep disturbances or severe anxiety symptoms that last longer than 2-4 weeks are cause for concern, though they may be inevitable among those who have been personally bereaved.
  •  Past history of trauma or recent bereavement makes coping with a community crisis much more difficult. So does vicarious traumatization: the second-hand trauma experienced by rescue personnel, therapists, pastoral counselors, and other caregivers. 

  • We are all at risk. 
    We must all care for ourselves tenderly as we go about reaching out to one another.

    Together, we will try to heal the world: our selves, our communities, and our land, from the wounds of violence. 

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

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