It was 1985 when I learned what it meant to feel unsafe. Nevado Del Ruiz, a volcano that is part of the Andes mountain range in Colombia, erupted and triggered a massive mudslide. The ensuing tragedy devastated the town of Armero, Colombia and surrounding areas leaving many homeless, injured and killing over 23,000 people.
Our family visited the town a few months after the tragedy and came across a few survivors refusing to leave the area despite the inhabitable conditions. Everything had been wiped out, leaving only a long, flat plane completely covering the entire town below with layers of volcanic debris, mud and ice. I was too young to understand the effects of natural disasters and not yet having the skills to process this event, I stored this memory away.
It was not until college that those memories resurfaced. It is pretty amazing how the mind stores memories or experiences we may not be able to comprehend at the time it occurs, yet make them easily accessible when we are ready to begin to understand their lessons. One of my professors instructed us to critically analyze the role of photojournalist when covering natural disasters. We were introduced to the story of Omyra Sanchez, a thirteen year old, girl pinned between the volcanic debris. She remained pinned from her neck down, leaving only her head and hands above the surface. Unable to be pulled out she died 60 hours later. The tragedy received a lot of international attention because of the powerful images that photojournalist Frank Fournier captured.
Fifteen years later and the memory of visiting the town of Armero instantly came back. I remembered meeting one of the survivors, a man in his 60’s who had lost his home, family, friends and community. He appeared fragile and vulnerable, robbed of his entire life by the volcano. He was open to accepting food and water, but refused to leave behind the only connection to the world he had lost. His hierarchy of needs had been stripped down to the bare minimum of survival and it was as though he was a single soul trapped between two worlds of life and death. Below ground he had created a memorial to his entire family, covering it with a tin roof leftover from one of the houses. Above the surface he had an empty, door-less fridge, which he would occasionally sit in to protect him from the sun.
I was grateful to the professor for reawakening that early memory that had been buried so deeply without allowing me the opportunity to discover its many lessons. Through this experience I learned that life is finite and cannot be taken for granted; it gave me the skills to re-establish the feelings of safety in order to enjoy the little joys of life. It has shaped my work as a clinician specially when working with trauma.
Tips to Coping with a Tragedy…
We have all experienced a tragedy directly or indirectly. Sometimes when we hear or experience a tragedy we may not only be affected by the event, but also the injustices that occur before or after the event. We often ask questions like why did this happen? Who is responsible? And, how could it have been prevented? These are important questions to help us process an event and begin to sort out the mixed emotions. Some very normal responses after experiencing a tragedy are feeling numb, scared, and in disbelief. A person’s response will depend on many factors. These are some general tips that can help with managing your emotions after experiencing a tragedy.
Give yourself some space to disconnect from the actual tragedy or tragedies around you. Your mind and body need to feel safe again, which is a process that can take days or years depending on how traumatic the event was for you. When you experience a threat on your existence or the existence of your loved ones it can activate our body’s natural physiological response known as fight or flight. Some people experience increased heart rate, pupils dilated, sweaty palms and a heightened response. Some ways to begin to re-establish feeling safe is to stop re-telling the narrative of the tragedy. Re telling your experience can promote healing when done with a mental health specialist. When you continue to tell the story over and over your mind is re-experiencing the event, activating the flight or fight response once again. Practice self-care and begin to nurture your mind and body. Limit the amount of time you spend watching the news or reading about other tragedies that are occurring around the world. This can many times confirm the belief or feeling that you are not safe making it harder to re establish feelings of safety. Look for help from a professional if you are experiencing flashbacks, nightmares or a constant startle response or have any other symptoms that may be affecting work, home or daily tasks.
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