Supporting Students in Tragedy

Youth Specialties
June 16th, 2016

What is trauma and what does it mean to survive and heal from it? 

This is a poignant question as we enter tornado season or as we look at violence in cities like Chicago.  Tragedy will naturally impact those in attendance differently than those who watched the events through a screen, but we will all be impacted regardless.

Have you ever been just sailing along smoothly in life and then BAM, trauma strikes and nothing is ever the same again? Maybe it was during a talk with a student where they revealed sexual abuse, maybe it was the phone call where you found out that one of your students was killed in a car accident, or worse, they died at their own hands.  Maybe it was a natural disaster that wrecked your community like a flood or tornado.  Maybe it was a senseless school shooting like Newtown.  And in that moment, nothing makes any sense.  What do you do?  Do you run away?  Do you decide you are not cut out for this kind of work?  Do you just withdraw or run to something that will anesthetize you from the hurt?  What do you do?

Before trauma occurs you and your students operate from a belief that the world is orderly, that most people are kind, and that there is meaning to life. Before the tragedy you believed that God was in control of all things but once tragedy strikes you discover that belief was shallow because it has never been challenged.

Post-trauma you are awakened to the awareness that you are not in control of anything and that you are vulnerable.  You begin to fear that you and your students are no longer safe and secure.  Often, what gave you meaning before the traumatic event evaporates in a cloud of smoke and we are left grasping at air.  Life no longer feels fair or just.

In the PTSD Workbook (2002) Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula tells us that many factors impact how an individual reacts to a traumatic event.  Age, time preparing for the event, amount of damage done to you, (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), the amount of damage witnessed, and the degree of responsibility one feels for causing or not preventing the event (pg. 5).

The authors go on to say that there are three major types of factors that influence the development of PTSD.  They are pre-event factors, event factors, and post-event factors.

Pre-Event Factors

  •  Previous exposure to severe adverse life events or trauma or childhood victimization, including neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or witnessing abuse
  • Hx. Of clinical depression
  • Poor coping skills
  • Unstable family system
  • Early substance abuse
  • Family hx. of anti-social / current anti-social behavior
  • Poor social support
  • Multiple early losses of people, places, or things
  • Gender (women 2x as likely to develop PTSD)

Event Factors

  • Geographic nearness to event
  • Level of exposure to event
  • The event’s meaning to the individual
  • Age: being young at the time of the event
  • Being victim of multiple traumatic events
  • Duration of trauma
  • The existence of an ongoing threat that the trauma will continue (e.g., war)
  • Participation in an atrocity, as a perpetrator or witness

Post-Event Factors

  • The absence of good social support
  • Not being able to do something about what happened
  • Indulging in self-pity while neglecting oneself
  • Being passive rather than active – letting things happen to you (disempowered)
  • Inability to find meaning in the suffering (Viktor FranklLogotherapy)

The PTSD Workbook by Williams and Poiluja, New Harbor Publications, Inc. 2002

As I read through these lists I can’t help but think that our ministries could play a central role of addressing many of the present factors surrounding traumatic events.

Spend some time this week talking with your staff or volunteers and discuss the factors on these lists and ask, “How can we be incarnational in the midst of trauma and tragedy?”  What would it look like if we were Jesus to those most hurt by the tragedy?

When a student dies, your grief may be heart-wrenching. When a student commits suicide, your reaction may be more complicated. Overwhelming emotions may leave you reeling — and you may be consumed by guilt, wondering if you could have done something to prevent this young person’s death. As you face life after a student’s suicide, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone.

Brace for powerful emotions

Tragedy can trigger intense emotions. For example:

  • Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness may set in. You and students may struggle with believing the tragedy couldn’t possibly be real.
  • Anger. You and your students may be angry with God for what seems like abandoning their family, ministry, and friends or for leaving a legacy of grief — or angry with yourself or others for missing clues about preventable tragedies, such as shootings or suicide.
  • Guilt. You and your students may replay “what if” and “if only” scenarios in your mind, blaming yourself or others for the tragedy. This is commonly referred to as “survivors guilt”.
  • Despair. You and your students may be gripped by sadness, depression, and a sense of defeat or hopelessness. You or others may have a physical collapse or even consider suicide.

You may continue to experience intense reactions during the weeks and months after a traumatic event — including nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and loss of interest in usual activities — especially if you other students were on the scene or first to the scene of the tragedy.

Adopt healthy coping strategies

The aftermath of a traumatic event, especially when there is loss of life, can be physically and emotionally exhausting. As you work through your grief and help others with theirs, be careful to protect your own well-being. You can’t be of use to others if you don’t equally care for yourself.

  • Keep in touch. Reach out to family, friends and spiritual leaders for comfort, understanding and healing. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen when you need to talk, as well as those who will simply offer a shoulder to lean on when you’d rather be silent.
  • If there is loss of life, grieve in your own way. Do what’s right for you, not necessarily someone else. If you find it too painful to visit a gravesite or share the details of the tragedy, wait until you’re ready.  It is not healthy to be “Superman” or “Superwoman”.
  • Be prepared for painful reminders. Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of a the traumatic event. Don’t chide yourself for being sad or mournful. Instead, consider changing or suspending ministry meetings that are too painful to continue.
  • Don’t rush yourself. Caring for others who have experienced trauma can lead to compassion fatigue, and healing must occur at its own pace. Don’t be hurried by anyone else’s expectations that it’s been “long enough.”
  • Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the painful event — and that’s OK. Healing doesn’t often happen in a straight line.
  • Consider a support group for families/friends affected by tragedy. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief may help you find a sense of purpose or strength.

A Prayer for Tragedy (from the Church of England)

Lord of all compassion
We pray for all of those caught up in the midst of tragedy or disaster.
For those who have lost life and those working to save life
For those who are worried for people they love
For those who will see their loved ones no longer
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in need of the peace that passes all understanding
For all who turn to you in the midst of turmoil
For those who cry out to you in fear and in love
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in confusion and those in despair
For those whose tears are yet to dry
For those in need of your unending love
Lord Have Mercy

chrisChris Schaffner is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.