'Tis the season to be jolly... but how?
The supposedly joyful Christmas season has brought misery with two Sandys -- first a superstorm, then the chilling massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut -- putting a pall over spirits already teetering over the threatened fiscal cliff.
As a psychologist, I'm seeing this three-fold trauma up close and personal. In these past weeks I've gone from helping people deal with upset over tightening spending belts for the holiday, to offering water bottles and a comforting ear to storm survivors in Staten Island and Far Rockaway, and now to grief counseling for mourning and frightened families after the Connecticut school massacre. Sadly, I remember other tragedies I've been at, over Christmastime in other parts of the world. On December 26, 2004, thousands of people and homes were swept away by the Asian tsunami; in Sri Lanka very soon after, I consoled many parents crying over their children slipping out of their arms into the swirling waters. Between Christmas and New Years in 1989 in Newcastle Australia after the earthquake there, I sat behind a microphone at a radio station answering questions for hours on end about coping, like with children's nightmares and homebound elderly. And in Haiti right after the devastating earthquake that hit soon after the New Year in 2010, I mourned Haitian children buried under rubble of their collapsed school, witnessed little ones having legs and arms amputated from their injuries, and trained students to comfort so many suffering on hospital grasses, seeking shelter in church yards and sleeping on the streets.
After all these tragedies abroad and at home, here are seven questions I hear from survivors:
"Will this ever happen again?"
In response to this most common question people of all ages and cultures ask, others often try to be reassuring, and say "no." But this is not the right -- or honest -- answer. Police can patrol schoolyards and meteorologists can monitor the atmosphere, but we cannot always prevent disaster. We can only react well to restore safety, and be prepared. Traumatic events are an opportunity to teach children and to remind ourselves about life's unpredictability and to learn to accept the unacceptable and deal with chaos and inevitable change.
"I feel guilty; how can I enjoy the holiday in the midst of such misery?"
In light of others' suffering, many feel guilty enjoying the season, and their loved ones. As one woman told me, "I took down my Christmas decorations out of respect." Another mother told me she was uncomfortable attending her daughter's school holiday party when "All I could think about were those children in Newtown."
I understand how she feels. I felt guilty myself, leaving the enormous gravity of Newtown to attend the starkly contrasting levity of the Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas. But I had made a commitment to cheer on Miss China, and I gave myself permission to honor that.
A big lesson for survivors and first responders is that respite is necessary for recharging and recovery. Guilt is a feeling you've done something wrong, but it is not wrong when you live with remembrance, and also honor lost loved ones by living life and giving love.
How can I have faith anymore?"
At times like these, one's belief and philosophy of life is put to the test. In the timeless book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner concludes that God cannot control all acts from poisonous people or a tumultuous environment, but suffers with us and offers love. Religious leaders and psychologists alike counsel that any disaster allows us to re-examine the meaning of life and to find purpose despite the challenging cycle of life and death.
"Will my kid, or someone I know, 'snap'?"
Indeed, some people are born with chemical imbalances or mental conditions, or experience traumas or brain injuries that lead to extreme acting out and violence. A number of teen mass murderers have reportedly been consumed with uncontrolled anger and/or depression. Signs of disturbance are usually evident in hindsight, but much as analysts try to profile and predict, not all potential explosions can be noticed or acted upon. Extreme emotional, neurological and cognitive problems demand professional help, as do behaviors like those exhibited by the child I saw at the grief center who survived the school massacre but was now banging his head against the wall. But short fuses are normal and can be healthily managed. When kids play "good guys and bad guys" or have nightmares about being chased by monsters -- normal games and fears that will likely escalate after the recent tragedy -- don't panic, but help them process their thoughts and feelings. Avoid explosive words when you're frustrated or threats of extreme punishment. Teach peace, not violence, by giving children toys this Christmas that stimulate playing peaceably with peers instead of play-acting with guns and war games.
"Why bother? Nothing matters anymore."
Every Christmas I advise people not to spend money to show love, but to give promises of four T's: your Time, Talk, Trust and Touch. Add a fifth T: aTtention. Especially now, in the wake of natural and man-made disasters, and the fiscal cliff and financial concerns affecting nearly everyone, recognize that people matter more than possessions.
"How can I ever forgive?"
When a parishioner at the New Hope Community Church service in Sandy Hook I attended mentioned the importance of forgiveness, I saw another person flinch at the thought. Forgiveness and compassion are part of many religious faiths; they're also psychological techniques to resolve inter-group violence and even to heal the extreme evil of genocide. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, yet compassion and most importantly, preventive attention and action, need to be addressed to identify potential perpetrators and treat their inner demons.
"How can I love in the midst of so much hate?"
Whenever loss or illness occurs, people resolve to consider the preciousness of life and express love never before put into words. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, many proclaimed, "I hugged my children tighter," and "I kissed my kids and told them I love them." Sadly, these expressions often fade over time as life's aggravations re-emerge. But they need to persist. As I have written about and counseled many times, personal connections and community cohesion facilitate healing. As President Obama reassured the Newtown community on his visit, "You're not alone in your grief." I saw this bonding blessedly at work when one mother at the grief center fell into the arms of another -- a veritable stranger -- who said, "We will help each other. I know we will get through this together."
In the spirit that life and celebration must go on, a wedding was held as planned last Sunday at the New Hope Community Church in Sandy Hook. As a parishioner told me, "It's important for our community to share some happiness in the midst of all this sorrow."
Heavy hearts can find solace and hope in the light and miracles inspired by the ancient stories behind both Christmas and Chanukah. And while the Mayans predicted that the world would end this year, hopefully it is violence, hatred, prejudice and conflict that will end, ushering in a new era of peace, understanding, and appreciation of the value of life and love.