How to process emotions when tragedy happens
Posted June 15, 2016
I'm having a hard time with this shooting in Orlando and wondering if you have any suggestions to processing the feelings this is bringing up and helping those in my family who are really upset to work through it. Do you have some advice?
When horrible things like the Orlando shootings happen, we find ourselves asking questions like, "How do I even process this horrific event? Why do things like this happen? Could this happen to us?" You and your family may experience a wide variety of emotions, things like anger, sadness, discouragement or fear.
Here are some ideas that might help you and your family members process what you are feeling around this tragedy and do something constructive in response:
- Choose to see life as a classroom. If life is a classroom, then every experience that happens here happens to teach us something, strengthen us or increase our love. We are here on the planet to experience every dimension of the human condition, which includes wonderful good things and some horrible evil. Many of these lessons and experiences are painful, costly and hard to understand. But we only have two mindset options when the rough stuff happens. We can trust God and the universe there is reason and purpose in evil and do our best to grow from it, or we can doubt and despair. Since we get to freely choose our perspective, we should choose one that creates peace.
- All men have agency and it has to be this way. We must have agency if we are to learn, but for agency to exist, evil has to exist. If the universe interfered or thwarted every evil act from happening, there would be no agency and no learning. We are here to have a full good-and-evil human experience, and that requires people being able to make terrible choices. Just understanding this brings some level of clarity.
- We aren’t supposed to understand specifically why some bad things happen. The universe has a good reason for keeping us in the dark too. We are better off not knowing the reason for everything, and here is why. Right now you are truly, deeply bothered and upset by these horrible events — as you should be.
If you understood the reason why this had to happen, if the mystery was solved and you understood it, you might make peace with the horror of the situation. You might not be appalled by it. That would be even worse than what you are experiencing now. Watching this kind of evil and not being moved by the horror of it — not questioning and feeling pain — would take away what makes you human.
Aron Moss wrote a wonderful article on this topic in which he explains, “Worse than innocent people suffering is others watching their suffering unmoved. And that's exactly what would happen if we were to understand why innocents suffer. We would no longer be bothered by their cry, we would no longer feel their pain, because we would understand why it was happening.” Moss said, “Imagine you are in a hospital and you hear a woman screaming with pain. Outside her room, her family is standing around chatting, all smiling and happy. You scream at them, 'What's wrong with you? Can't you hear how much pain she is in?' They answer, 'This is the delivery ward. She is having a baby.' When you have an explanation, the pain doesn't seem so bad anymore. We can tolerate suffering when we know why it is happening."
So the question we must focus on isn’t “Why do these bad things happen?” but “What do we do when bad things happen?”
- Choose trust. Trust the universe that it knows what it's doing. Choose to believe that even the things we can’t understand (in the end) will serve us for good somehow. Trusting the universe and seeing it as a wise teacher who is constantly conspiring to educate us will bring peace.
- Do as much good as possible. Let these events make you a better, kinder and more loving person. Instead of trying to answer unanswerable questions, turn your grief into a force for good in your home and community.
Speak out against injustice and cruelty. Stand up for the underdog. Make sure those who are different from you still feel loved and cared about. Love all people more passionately and take action to alleviate suffering wherever you can. See all human beings as having the same infinite value and stand up for those who are mistreated.
Moss also said, “We don't really want answers, we don't want explanations, and we don't want closure. … We want an end to suffering … but we [shouldn't] leave it up to God to alleviate suffering. … He is waiting for us to do it. That's what we are here for.”
I’ve noticed when tragedy strikes it upsets me, but it also increases my love for people (even people I don’t know). I suddenly discover my love for my fellow human beings, and it is always much deeper than I realized.
As you process the painful, sad emotions this week, also watch for unexpected tender feelings of love, both toward the people who were hurt and toward your friends, family and even strangers. This heightened sense of love is an amazing and beautiful thing and it is a good thing to focus on.
Think back to the months following 9/11. Do you remember how connected you felt to your fellow Americans? Do you remember how suddenly our differences seemed smaller and the things we had in common seemed bigger? Let this happen to you this week. Focus on your love for your fellow human beings.
To honor those whose lives have been cut short this week, let’s make the most of our lives and fill the world with love on their behalf.
We can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.