Normal Reactions to Abnormal Events

04/24/2013 08:44 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

The first time I volunteered for the Red Cross on an aviation disaster was in the year 2000. It had been a long time coming, even though I was already well-established in the field of death and grieving. Years before, I had wanted to volunteer for disaster work but I had to go through their extensive training before I would ever be assigned to an actual aviation disaster.

My first assignment was for the Singapore Airlines crash in 2000, which took 83 lives out of 179 passengers. It was unique that so many people survived a plane that was engulfed in flames. At the airport, my job was to assess and support survivors who had seen a loved one burn up right beside them. I thought I was well-prepared for this kind of thing, but I was taken aback when a woman showed me pictures used to help identify her loved one's charred body. These sorts of images leave you breathless in a tragedy, whether it is natural disaster such as a hurricane or man made such as the Boston terrorist attack.

That night, I tossed and turned with nightmares from the images I had seen that are usually viewed by first responders or victims. The next morning, I judged myself as being weak and inadequate because of the nightmares and I decided to confess my fears to my supervisor. I was sure she would turn to me and say, "You tried, David. Not everyone can handle this kind of work but at least you tried."

Her actual response surprised me when she said, "I would expect you to have nightmares last night. After what we just witnessed, nightmares would be a normal reaction to an abnormal event. I would be very concerned if you had told me that you slept like a baby."

In the Boston Marathon tragedy we recently lived through, many will be left with difficult images, haunting thoughts and deep grief. In the aftermath, it is important to remember that our grief is as unique as our fingerprints. Each of us will have our own normal reactions to the abnormal events that we have just witnessed.

Some of us will sleep a lot; some won't be able to sleep at all. Some will overeat; others will turn away from food. Some will throw themselves into work; others will say, What's the point? Some will want to talk about it; some will want to put it behind them and move forward. It is important to remember in these times, that grief is our internal response while mourning is how we outwardly express that grief. Everyone does it differently so grief needs to be a "No Judgment Zone."

When we provide opportunities for people to talk about what happened, and resources to deal with the trauma, we lessen the chances of post traumatic stress occurring. Being active in grief and expressing emotions publicly or privately will help those who were affected adjust to the new normal in which they will now be living.

In Obama's remarks about the capture of the terrorist, he said, "...we have seen the character of our country once more." That same character will cushion our grief with love and support for those who lost loved ones and were seriously injured, not just in the next few days but in the months and years to come. Catching the perpetrators may stop the threat but it will not stop the grief.

As we move forward, it is important to remember that those normal reactions that we have are signs that we are caring human beings going through grief after a very abnormal event. We can fully feel and acknowledge our reactions without feeling that we are weak or that something is wrong with us. Grief shared helps to heal and decrease the pain. Facing that grief will help us continue our lives knowing that Fear doesn't stop death. Fear stops life.