Q: We have yet again, faced tragedy in our community, with the recent deaths of a number of our children. These deaths affect so many others. I am concerned about the impact on my family, since we are very close to one of these families. What can I do and what should I look for?
A: As a parent, my heart goes out to all who have suffered this tragic loss. You are right to be concerned. Grief affects people of all ages and it does not go away when the formal mourning period ends. One of the most important things you can do is recognize this and keep the lines of communication open. Talk about the person who has died. Talk about the feelings you each have about the loss. Don’t be afraid that talking about it will cause more pain because the pain is there and is less damaging if it is placed outside of us rather than held in. It may be hard for you to watch someone cry and your first instinct may be to try to cheer them up so that they will stop, but crying is good for us. It lets out the pain.
If you find that you or your loved one has a change in sleeping or eating patterns, stops socializing, seems lifeless with no spark, feels hopeless, has nightmares or continuous thoughts of either the incident or the individual, or cries continuously, you should regard these as danger signals. Alternately you should see any indication that the person has completely, and inappropriately, forgotten or detached from the incident, as another sign that they need help. The longer these symptoms go on without lessening, the more concerned you should be. Any major change in behaviour such as drinking, promiscuity, stealing, or failing at work or school, that is out of character, is a further warning sign. Any anxiety/panic attacks should be recognized as further symptoms.
A person with these symptoms may be suffering from depression, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, or an anxiety disorder, to name a few. The label is irrelevant to a great extent, except that it can sometimes guide in the course of treatment. Counselling, especially if it begins as soon as possible, is very effective for all of these conditions as is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing), which I would use in conjunction with counselling in appropriate cases.
People are sometimes afraid to let go of their grief, fearing either, that it will seem that they did not love the person who died, or that they will forget the loved one if they do not hold onto the pain. You can love someone and remember them and keep their memory alive, without feeling pain. There are many wonderful things that you can do to honour them and give meaning to their life. Helping someone else with their burdens, often makes it easier to carry ours.