|A Feeling of Helplessness|
|A Search for Meaning|
|Blaming Ourselves or Others|
|How Social Workers Help|
When life is suddenly interrupted by a tragic or traumatic event, it can seem that the world has come to a screeching halt. Murders, assaults, and tragic accidents that occur without warning are particularly disturbing and difficult to manage emotionally. How individuals recover from such situations often depends on the prior psychological functioning of the individual, the exact nature of the trauma, and the individual’s ability to regain some sense of safety and control over his or her world. There are, however, striking similarities in the ways in which we humans attempt to regain our composure and resume our lives after such an event.
While grief or sympathy is an expected reaction, another feeling is also tapped following a tragedy: a frightening sense of helplessness. Disasters, accidents, and traumatic events can invoke significant feelings of vulnerability and a loss of control in all of us. While each day brings countless threats and potential dangers to every human being, we have evolved to psychologically “insulate” ourselves from these fears and to proceed through our lives as if we, and everyone around us, have been somehow guaranteed another day. We dismiss the chance of death or loss, and we find comfort in predictability. We create a bubble around ourselves, enabling us to happily overlook our own mortality and the potential for life to suddenly and irreversibly change course. When that bubble is suddenly burst, it can leave us feeling helpless and vulnerable. Life suddenly becomes scary and unpredictable, and those feelings can be paralyzing.
To regain some feeling of control and to again make sense of life after a seemingly senseless occurrence, we may begin to search for both meaning and often blame. We may replay the specifics of the tragedy and the events leading up to it over and over to try and restore a sense of predictability. We may search all of the available information to find something, anything, that could have been done to prevent it: “If only I had taken another road…If only the airports had screened more carefully…If only the levees had been built betterâ€¦”
If we decide that someone could have intervened and prevented the tragedy, or that some sequence of events could have been recognized as a prelude to the disaster, then we may feel that it is within our capability to prevent such a disturbance to our predictable world from ever happening again. If we begin to believe that it actually wasn’t inevitable or unforeseeable, then no matter whom or what is to blame, we believe we can insure that the same mistakes are never repeated. The awful randomness of tragedy is thereby erased, and our impenetrable bubble is once again restored. Life returns to its normal, predictable patterns, and the demons return to the shadows.
While these maneuvers to restore a sense of mastery over our world are natural and usually benign coping strategies, they can also be the catalyst for a disaster of another kind. If, in our attempt to make sense out of the senseless, we misplace blame on either ourselves or on another, then we create culpability or responsibility where there is none. This results in essentially restoring our own sanity by sacrificing our humanity.
While we cannot be expected to completely avoid these tragic tendencies, we can be expected to constantly question our own motives and reactions. Anger, grief, sadness, confusion are all valid and understandable emotions in response to life’s sudden attempt to exert its own will. But they are emotions that we, as individuals, must process and resolve for ourselves. It is important to recognize that a sense of helplessness may be complicating recovery. We must be able to look to life-affirming activities to help restore a sense of peace and balance.
If we are able to keep in mind that our own responses to tragedy and loss are often based in fear and a false sense of omnipotence, then we may be able to resist the desire to throw our neighbor into the volcano to deter the next eruption. Then, once we begin to accept that in many ways our lives are unpredictable and our days fleeting, we can begin to live more fully and cherish each moment that we are given.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, social workers are often “first responders” who provide services both on-site and in the subsequent days and months. Whether the situation involves only a handful of individuals such as in a shooting or an entire region such as with Hurricane Katrina, social workers are involved in the task of getting people’s lives back to normal as quickly as possible.
- Social workers help connect victims and their families with critical services and provide mental health interventions for emergency personnel.
- Social workers provide ongoing psychological services for those directly impacted by a tragedy and help individuals move through their grief and fear related to the trauma.
- Social workers normalize feelings which create a greater sense of control.
- In situations where children are displaced, state social workers often assist them in finding temporary or long-term placement.
- When the tragedy involves the loss of a home or income, social workers help locate things like food, clothing, and shelter for the affected individuals. Social workers also help with job placement and the application for state or federal funds for which the individual might qualify.