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When disaster strikes

Published June 04. 2011 09:05AM

It was 4 a.m. when the phone rang and an emergency room doctor told me that my Dad had been killed in an automobile accident. That was on March 24, 1968. The memories of that frightful night still reside in my head. Whenever the phone rings at an odd hour, my skin breaks out in goose bumps. When I ride in a car, I am usually a nervous passenger.

When we are in the middle of a crisis, most of us are full of anxiety and tension. Feelings of helplessness and lack of control cause us to experience great stress. Whether it is the sudden death of a loved one, the effects of a hurricane or tornado, or a school shooting, our reactions at these times of trial vary. Every human being handles disaster differently.

According to my friend Monsignor Joseph P. Dooley, retired pastor of St. Rocco's Church in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, people usually go through six stages of emotion when they are confronted with crisis. These stages are:

1. Shock and disbelief - "Oh, my God, this can't be happening."

2. Panic - A sense of fear sets in and a loss of sense of direction and purpose. Crying, irrational thoughts, and mental confusion reign supreme.

3. Anger and hostility - Bitterness and resentment set in as we try to lash out at whatever we perceive is responsible for the crisis.

4. Withdrawal and depression - A sense of abandonment, loneliness, and isolation cause us to even hurt the ones we love.

5. Bargaining - The last line of defense, we promise to repent and change ourselves if only the crisis will go away. The reality of the situation begins to be understood.

6. Resignation and acceptance - Putting things in perspective, we strike out in new directions, and make a new start at life.

There is no time limit that one person can spend on a single step. Some people get "stuck" on one step for a lifetime. I know a widow who is angry and bitter after the death of her husband - 20 years ago.

There is also no assurance that going through all six steps will bring 100% acceptance of the disaster. It could happen that another incident could trigger a return to an earlier step.

As with all of life's problems, time can be a great healer. Today, I can think of my Dad with fond memories and less pain. Even though his death occurred over 40 years ago, it is still amazing how little things can bring a memory of him rushing back.

How do children handle disaster and crisis? Each child will also respond differently to the incident, based on his understanding and maturity. All children will interpret the negative incident as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about.

Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in children at the outset. Even children who had outgrown those behaviors long ago may have a reoccurrence. They may also complain of stomach pain or headaches and be reluctant to go to school.

It's important for the parent to remember that these children are not being "bad" - they're afraid and nervous. Here are some suggestions to help children cope with their fears:

1. Reassure the child that he is safe.

2. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child's fears whenever he wants.

3. If you work, telephone the child during the day to let him know you are there for him and that you love him.

4. Give extra hugs and kisses.

5. Answer the child's questions in clear, simple, honest terms.

6. Don't tell the child not to worry. Doing so will just make him worry more.

7. Don't say, "This won't ever happen again." Children know when we are trying to fool them. Instead say something like "I'll always try to keep you safe" or "We'll work together to solve this."

8. Children's fears are always the worst at bedtime. Stick around until he falls asleep to make him feel protected and secure.

9. Images of disaster and crisis are extremely frightening to children, so monitor what the child watches on TV and in movies.

10. Allow your child to express himself with drawings and play. Sometimes the child will want to "retell" the story. That is perfectly normal.

11. Don't be afraid of saying, "I don't know." Explain to your child that life is unpredictable and even adults have trouble accepting certain problems.

In some ways, dealing with adolescents is even harder than with younger children. Teenagers and young adults may downplay their worries or ignore their feelings. It is generally a good idea to talk about the issue briefly and then keep the lines of communication open. Don't force a teenager to talk when they're not ready.

If you need immediate help with a problem, the National Mental Health Association has a 24-hour hot line - 1-800-969-6642.

People in today's world are exposed to a wide range of trauma - accidents,

airplane crashes, acts of violence, physical assaults, natural disasters, and even divorce and family abuse. One of the most important things you can do for someone involved in a crisis is to be a supportive, active listener.

It is important to realize that it takes weeks, months, and sometimes years before a survivor of trauma can put the disaster behind him. Some never do.

(If you would like to discuss this or another education topic with Dr. Smith, she can be reached at or in care of this newspaper).

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