When tragedy hits home: how we deal, how we heal

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Travis Dove/The New York Times
People gathered near the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus after a shooting on campus on Tuesday.

“Breaking News: Active shooter on UNCC campus” the headlines read. My heart immediately sank.

As of March 19, there have been 61 mass shootings in the U.S. recorded by Gun Violence Archive. So far, 2019 has seen more of these tragedies than we did at this time last year.

Just 20 years after Columbine, this doesn’t get any easier. But it’s almost like there’s a “routine” on how to deal with it from afar. We see the news, offer prayers and condolences to those affected, and then try to move on the next day — it doesn’t directly impact us. Until it does.

The latest mass shooting on a school campus happened right in my own backyard.

As a native of Charlotte, I never imagined we would be the next city affected by this type of tragedy. As someone who lived in the University City area for years, it affects you a little differently. A certain fear comes over you. You begin to question your safety at every turn. It becomes a mental battle of “how do I react to this?”

Other Charlotteans are are likely wrestling with the same emotions as our city begins to figure out how to deal and heal from this heartbreaking incident.

So, what do we do? How do we grieve in healthy ways? Who do we talk to?

What to expect emotionally

“We’ve had a rash of gun violence in Charlotte recently, and there’s a cumulative effect,” said Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, Executive Director of Presbyterian Psychological Services.

“Being anxious, afraid to go to school, having sleep issues, depression and anger are all symptoms that can be experienced when events like this happen in your community.”

Emotional reactions will be different for everyone and how we process it will differ as well.

“There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” said Dr. Elise Herman, Novant Health psychiatrist and physician executive. “However, if it begins to interrupt your regular routine after some time, that is when you should begin to seek more professional help. No matter what, take care of yourself and do what you need for yourself.”

Ways to cope

Alicia Tetteh, owner of Building Endurance an outpatient therapy company as well as an adjunct professor at UNCC, provided a few techniques that Charlotteans can use to begin to cope when tragedy strikes.

“The first thing I always tell people is that it’s normal to feel sad, to cry, and to have emotions even if you don’t know someone directly affected or you weren’t directly involved. It’s important to validate people’s feelings.”

It’s perfectly normal to be hyper-vigilant after learning of a tragedy, especially if you’ve been affected by tragedy in your past. It’s one of the natural effects of trauma.

“Searching social media in hopes of getting up-to-date information on everything surrounding a tragedy can increase anxiety. Even though it’s hard to escape social media and the general media these days, try to unplug for a while.”

Our healthcare professionals all suggest reaching out to your natural support system after experiencing trauma is important. If you don’t have an immediate support system, seeking professional services is an option is well. Just having someone sit with you, even if words aren’t spoken, is therapeutic.

Doing something positive for another person during tragedy can help channel emotions. Whether it’s being the listener or taking part in a community service project.

Finally, find a release for your thoughts and emotions. Writing and hitting the gym are suggestions, although it will differ for each person.

“I highly suggest narrative therapy when coping with trauma. It allows you to re-write your own ending to how a tragedy occurred,” Tetteh said.

Resources available

“After events like this, we experience a lot of different reactions,” said Dr. Robert Waterhouse, Chief Medical Officer of UnitedHealthcare NC.

UnitedHealthcare offers a free emotional support line. It is open 24/7 to anyone, even to those who aren’t insured through United. “It’s important to have a listening ear to express your concerns. We can also link you with community resources as well as behavioral health services. It’s helpful to talk through what you’re feeling to get to the next step of recovering.”

UnitedHealthcare Emotional Support Line: 866-342-6892.

Novant Health has licensed therapists standing by around the clock for grief counseling via their support line.

Novant Health Line: 1-800-786-1585

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