Tips for Helping a Loved One After a Tragedy, from a Christian Disaster Expert

This piece was originally published in the Washington Post's Acts of Faith on June 14, 2016.

A teddy bear was among dozens of flowers left in honor of the deceased in Orlando. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A teddy bear was among dozens of flowers left in honor of the deceased in Orlando. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The senseless act of violence in Orlando is the worse mass shooting on U.S. soil. The tragedy has left our country shaken. Some lost family members, friends or co-workers. Others are waiting at the bedsides of loved ones who were injured. Some escaped physical injury but were wounded emotionally.

Perhaps you know someone directly affected by the attack. Maybe you know someone who lives in or was visiting Orlando. Far more likely, you know one or more people who were physically far from this shooting yet are feeling rattled: It could be that this event brought back feelings of trauma in your friends whose lives have been touched by violence or hatred before. Countless U.S. citizens have experienced trauma in some form or another. You probably know someone close to you who needs care and support. Yet as a disaster psychologist, I have found people often struggle to help those closest to them. You may feel as if you have nothing to offer, but you do — and here are a few practical ways to help.

Meet basic needs

Don’t try to be your loved one’s psychologist. The best thing you can do is help meet his or her most pressing basic needs. By caring for your loved one’s practical needs, you are caring for psychological needs and spiritual needs, too.

Throughout the scriptures, we see numerous examples of times when Christ and his disciples attended to spiritual and practical needs, such as offering hope and food in tandem. Remember the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Basic needs include safety, comfort and belonging. This may mean helping your loved one find a place to stay where he feels safe or getting her something to eat when she is hungry. It may not feel as though you are doing much, but you are helping more than you realize.

Focus on the tangible and immediate to get through the crisis. It’s okay to directly ask how you can help. If your loved one is not sure how you can help, you might try approaches that were useful for that person before the incident.

Foster connection

One of the best ways you can help is by offering social support. Being present lets your loved ones know that you care. If you can’t physically be with them, then call, text, Skype, email, send a card. Galatians 6:2 teaches, “Share one another’s burdens and so follow the teachings of Jesus.” A Facebook post letting a friend know you are thinking of her might be the best way to share her burden.

Many trauma survivors experience intense worry about others involved. If you can reunite your loved one with friends or family who were separated during a tragedy, that can be therapeutic. Even a phone call can reduce emotional stress when in-person visits are not feasible or advisable.

Your loved ones may also need to have others close for prolonged periods of time before they feel safe being alone. If it’s possible, you can volunteer to stay nearby or help find other trusted friends to be near.

At the same time, keep in mind that some survivors need some time alone or feel fearful in crowded rooms.

Listen without being pushy

Listen without judging your loved one’s stories, emotions or experiences. It is important to remember there is no wrong or right way to feel in the aftermath of mass violence. As James 1:19 instructs, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak.”

Be careful not to force your loved ones to share before they are ready. Mental-health professionals used to think having survivors tell their trauma stories right after an event helped reduce negative psychological consequences. We now know that trying to delve too deeply too quickly after mass trauma into survivors’ emotions and thoughts can actually cause harm.

Convey that it’s okay to take as much time as needed before sharing their story. Let your loved ones know you will be there when they are ready to talk.

Give accurate information

It’s common for survivors to feel confused or disoriented after mass acts of violence. This can leave them with gaps in their understanding of what occurred and with many questions.

You can help by providing accurate information about the situation. Provide repeated, simple and truthful information. If your loved one has questions you can’t satisfy, don’t hesitate to admit that you don’t know the  answers — and then do your best to find out. Know that answers may take time to surface. Be aware that your loved one may also seek answers by closely following media stories.

Although news coverage may help answer some of your loved one’s questions, too much exposure can also  increase distress. Seeing images of the incident over and over can trigger strong negative emotional  reactions.

Know when, where and how to refer someone for more help

Look for signs that your loved one might benefit from additional professional support from a licensed mental-health professional or health-care provider.

We often hold up the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as an exemplar of helping, and rightly so. But even the Samaritan knew his limits. He helped the robbery survivor as much as he could. Then came a point where the Samaritan realized he needed additional support for the man he found on the road. That’s when he turned to the innkeeper.

Sometimes people who undergo extreme stress begin to act unpredictably, display heightened emotional reactions, engage in impulsive or risky behavior, or resort to self-medicating. These are just a few cases when a referral might be needed. Other red flags include worrying about one’s safety or the welfare of others.

Research has shown that mass trauma survivors experiencing persistent symptoms benefit from counseling. For example, cognitive behavior therapy for post-disaster distress has been shown to improve survivors’ mental-health with lasting gains.

Let your loved one know that professionals are available to help. You might share information about available community resources or even get some recommendations of trusted professionals nearby.

More resources are available at apa.org, counseling.org, psychiatry.org, naswdc.org and aamft.org.

 

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College,  in Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter  @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.