Mind Matters—In the Aftermath of National Tragedy

Cardboard boxes, emptied of the ornaments they held, stay strewn around the Christmas tree as I write this: the memorabilia of forty plus years join new LED lights to mark the “season merry and bright.”

Not so. Christmas is always the push of Light against and into the Darkness. The national tragedy of the deaths of twenty children and seven adults in the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school is a grim reminder of this.

In our collective grief, perhaps we can also have compassion for the innocent children who are killed in drone attacks in Pakistan or on the streets of Camden, Philadelphia, Chicago, Wilmington. The anonymity of these children doesn’t diminish the significance of their deaths. In all these cases, the bottom line is violence and the disregard for the pricelessness of human life.

That said, how do we face the traumatic grief on an individual and collective level?

It can help to talk to others and share feelings and experiences. Be aware of and honor the feelings that arise. Some of us may become edgy, others fatigued. Some of us find ourselves crying and feeling sad, others may feel angry or fearful. In addition to recognizing our feelings, we need to find healthy outlets for them. What works to de-stress and relax?

It does help to exercise or even to take a ten minute walk. Some people find a warm bath soothing, or writing a worry list that gets the internal chatter out of the head and onto paper.

While our human bodies are fragile and life turns to death in an instant, the human spirit is amazingly resilient. We can keep this in mind when we address the responses of our children in the wake of tragedy. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can be supportive by making sure children feel connected, cared about, and loved. We need to listen to children and allow them to express their feelings, letting them know it’s okay to have their feelings. We also can allow children to ask questions.

Mister Rogers once remarked that when he was a child his mother would note whenever there was some tragic incident to look for the helpers. We can heed this advice and point out to our children to look for the people who are performing acts of kindness and are helping. This also gives role models to children for how they can act.

Adults can help children see that they are not to blame when bad things happen. Often children may enact “magical thinking”—“I wished something, there it happened.” Do you remember, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back?”

Another way we help our kids is to not engender violent acts ourselves. While we can express our feelings, screaming and hitting or kicking walls, for example, frightens children all the more.

What is best for our children is what is best for ourselves. When we take care of our physical and emotional health, we provide role models for our children as well as providing an emotionally and physically safe environment.

As for the link between mental illness and violence, there is virtually none. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and “people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.” (Washington.edu reference below.)

May we, in this season of Light against the Dark, find loving connection. For it has been said, “The beauty that will save the world is the love that shares the pain.” (Cardinal Martini)

This column used the following resources:

-          http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/mass-shooting.aspx

-          http://www.savethechildren.org

-          http://www.samhsa.gov

(Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (877)SAMHSA-7)

-          http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php

Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or (610)388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com.

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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