Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Helping This Winter's Survivors

May 5, 1997

This winter has wrought hardship, suffering and financial loss. Livestock producers in the Northern Plains have had a devastating winter coming on top of low cattle prices. A killer spring blizzard capped off a winter of blizzards. Many people experienced fatigue, exhaustion and mind-numbing confusion from fighting the elements - the rising waters or the deep snows. It felt like being in a war zone.

Unprecedented flooding has displaced families from their homes. Some farmland will be too wet to plant. The assumptions of a normal, predictable safe and secure life have been shattered. Life is no longer manageable. These traumatic events challenge basic spiritual understandings of a kind, benevolent and just world.

Psychologist Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has studied positive and negative effects on trauma victims. Here are some of the challenges victims have to master.

1. One must do and not do. Taking action is necessary to manage difficulties, but the tolerance of inaction, waiting and accepting is also important.

2. One must learn to rely on others, but also that ultimately managing a crisis is up to the individual.

3. Trauma is in the past and one must learn how to keep it there. On the other hand, it is more easily resolved if they integrate it into present life in some constructive fashion.

4. One must be able to give up attempts at "primary control," such as attempts to reverse the effects of the trauma, where such reversal is clearly impossible. Eventually the affected individual must have a willingness to accept some aspects of the situation as unchangeable.

Tedeschi realizes these emotional tasks are paradoxical but make sense to those who go through them. Traumatic events have great power to transform or change lives in significant ways. It is highly emotional learning. With time, most of it will be for the good. Some of it may be for the worse. There are no short cuts. People have to go through it to understand the experience.

So how do family, friends and helping professionals help in situations like these? He offers the following advice.

  • Be respectful of an individual’s processes of coping. People respond to crisis in idiosyncratic ways. Positive change cannot be forced. It has to be experienced.
  • Be tolerant and accepting of ideas and rationales that are not completely logical. Some positive illusions are beneficial in the coping process. Ruminations are helpful in trying to make sense out of the world. The greater the level and breadth of the ruminations that occur, especially in the time soon after the event, the greater the likelihood of positive integration of the crisis into that person's life.
  • Focus on listening rather than trying to solve anything for the person in crisis.
  • Take your cues from the victim's attempts to find meaning in the crisis. Helpful advice and perspectives on growth and benefits from a crisis are not welcome immediately after a traumatic event. Timing is everything. Reinforce reasonable positive interpretations the individual makes.
  • Reframe or bring into sharper focus the changes that have occurred because of the crisis. Be clear in your views that any benefits that come from the traumatic event are a result of the struggle with the trauma, not from any loss or change that might have occurred.
  • Strike a balance between accepting what is a normal response of pain and distress and communicating hope and encouragement.
  • Be willing to engage in a religious dialogue. Many people utilize their religious belief in trying to assimilate a life crises. Welcome these kinds of discussions and be willing to wrestle with ambiguity and the complexity of their confusion. Be accepting of their reassessment of religious beliefs, spiritual self-assessment and existential questions that arise from the crisis.
  • Encourage the setting of new goals. Even small goals require self-discipline and persistence during recovery. Taking responsibility for helping oneself through personal effort is vital to managing their new life.
  • Encourage interactions with others who have suffered similar circumstances. Loneliness and isolation are prevented along with the feeling that they are alone with their tragedy. Contact with those who are further along in their coping enables the victim to feel understood and to see positive problem-solving approaches to difficulties.
  • With time, the victim can seek out opportunities to be useful to others and gain purpose, meaning and strength that comes with helping others.
  • Help the victim tell the story of their trauma and how it has affected him or her. Healing comes with telling and retelling the story of the trauma and the place it occupies in their life. Writing one's feelings is also helpful.

With retelling and with time, new perspectives will emerge. People will come to terms with the losses that have occurred, the existential lessons learned, the limitations they experience and the new possibilities in their lives.

Join your suffering friend in their journey of pain - in their way and at their pace. There will be a time when you might be on that path and others will help you make sense of what has happened to you. This is something we can do for each other.