Coping with Grief and Trauma

Last month, our community experienced the tragic loss of two members. The loss was unexpected and violent in nature. The most vulnerable members of our community, children, were directly affected by the event. Now we must consider our response and how we move forward.

This horrific event brings many important issues to the forefront. Among them are how do we recognize and address mental illness? What steps can be taken to shine a light on domestic violence? How can we better protect children? As we strive to make progress in addressing these vitally important issues, we are also moving through our personal and community grieving process.

We will each experience this loss in different ways. Depending on our own relationship with the victims or connection to the event, the grief we experience will look and feel unique. The loss may be intensely personal for those of us who shared a relationship with the victims. It might manifest itself as a loss of safety or innocence. We all have the right to express grief, as mourning is what allows the individual as well as the community to recover. I am often asked what purpose mourning serves, as it can’t “fix” what happened. Indeed, mourning does not make a loss acceptable; it instead provides the opportunity to continue with life.

Grief is not something we are prepared for, especially when the circumstances are unforeseen. When we grieve, we attempt to address thoughts and feelings about our loss. While this process is different for each individual, some common themes arise. As we manage our grief, and join our children in their process, it can be helpful to think about some of these themes.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed that people universally experience five stages of loss and grief. These are labeled as denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is important to note that this process is neither inear nor finite. One often moves fluidly between these different stages. These stages are also not the only way to experience loss and grief. Grief is personal and people are resilient. We find our own way through difficult situations and feelings. Our personal journey is neither right nor wrong. What is most important when addressing our personal grief, the grief of our loved ones and the grief of our community is that we allow it. Attempting to stymie this natural process only prolongs our suffering. Instead, we must try to be patient with the process, as we cannot put a timetable on grief.

When a traumatic event affects children, our concerns about the grieving response can be especially heightened. One of the challenges of supporting children through the grieving process is accepting that adults and children often manage loss and grief in very different ways. Children do not always communicate their needs openly. To encourage communication, we must take an open and nonjudgmental stance toward the ways a child may respond. Some kids will immediately show concern and want extra attention. They may change play behavior or lose focus on schoolwork. Children may also focus on different aspects of the loss. Children are wonderful at being present in the here and now. This may be at odds with the “adult” desire to explore all possible outcomes and consequences.

What can we do to help children (and ourselves) manage grief and trauma? Open communication is a good place to start. Let children know that whatever their response may be, it is OK. Allowing children to accept their feelings is supportive of their individual process. As for our own actions, it is safe to express our own thoughts and feelings around a child, although we also want to support a sense of safety and continuity. Strong displays of emotions can disrupt this sense. As adults, we are able to model how we take care of ourselves when we grieve. We can demonstrate healthy tools for managing stress and fear. Adults and children are similar in that both are often comforted by a sense of routine.

As we struggle to develop our personal and community narrative around the loss we have experienced, it is a good time to remember that we may need support. Communicating with friends, family or professionals can help. The community response to this tragedy has been immense. None of us is alone. Reaching out for support not only strengthens the individual who asks for help, it also brings us together as a community. The Jewish tradition asks that we come together in times of grief and loss. Through this action, we allow ourselves to take the first step in the process of moving forward.

Douglass Ruth, LCSW, is a mental health therapist at Jewish Family & Child Service in Portland. To learn more about the JFCS counseling program, contact Clinical Director Douglass Ruth, LCSW, at 503-226-7079 ext. 124.

On Nov. 10, the father of two Portland Jewish Academy students went to the home of the girls’ mother and killed her. Later, he took his own life. PJA consulted with Jewish Family & Child Service and the Dougy Center to help staff, parents and students deal with the tragedy.
Close family friends are caring for the children as emergency foster parents. In family court Nov. 12, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Diana I. Stuart said, “The good news is that these children have a lot of loving family.’’The court planned another hearing at the end of November regarding legal custody.

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