The Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and the decimation of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado. It seems like the last 6 months has brought us a lifetime of tragedy. Even if you aren’t personally involved, it is hard not to identify with the pain and grief being experienced all across our great nation. After the tragedy in Sandy Hook I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t erase the horrific pictures so carefully painted in my mind. I couldn’t even find solace in the hugs of my children because I couldn’t bear that other mom’s couldn’t hug their own. I was overwhelmed by my grief, my fear, and my guilt.
How can people cope in a world where we can witness, in real time, our worst nightmares playing out in front of our eyes in HD? To answer this question and more, I sought the advice of Joshua M. Massler, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist. Together, with the help of his father, Licensed Psychiatrist, Dennis J. Massler, he answered my questions on grief, guilt, and getting by during these difficult times.
stressed mom
Q: Some people are overwhelmed by a feeling of “helplessness.” Is it normal to feel this way?
A: I used to know what normal was until I realized there was no such thing as normal.  It is common for people to feel helpless and overwhelmed in this type of circumstance.  For the people who lost family, neighbors, friends or even acquaintances, even if they had strong coping skills, it would be strange for them not to feel that way. Even for those of us far removed from tragedies such as these, it is common to have strong visceral reactions when we see or hear about these events.  It is not a stretch for any of us to envision this happening to any of our loved ones. (photo credit here)

Q: Is it possible to sympathize without internalizing? Is it okay to go on living your own life?
A: I am not capable of sympathizing without internalizing.  Not only is it okay to go on living your own life, it is essential.  In a circumstance such as this, I believe sympathy not to be enough.  We need to be able to empathize with the people going through these tragic experiences.

Q: Even if you aren’t involved directly, is it possible to feel “survivor guilt”?
A: Denial is an amazing defense and at times like these may serve certain individuals well. For others it is exceptionally difficult to extricate themselves from the guilt of being safe and unscathed while others are suffering to an extent that many of us cannot even relate or imagine.  Survivor guilt is possible and not uncommon even for those who aren’t directly involved.


Q: Besides prayer or donations, are there any other ways to honor the suffering of other people while also continuing to live your life?
A: Yes, hold the people you love more closely, do not take them for granted and help out where you can, as lovingly as you are able.  Life is fleeting. Most people do not begin to live until they know they are going to die or lose someone they truly love. These tragedies provide us with a unique opportunity to honor life itself.  We honor those lost as well as those who mourn them by not having their passing be in vain. I believe it to be our obligation to deal with every person no matter what the circumstance as respectfully and lovingly as we are able. Every moment, every action is a prayer. (photo credit here)

Q: What are some things people can do to cope with the stress and the grief?
A: Talking about it is helpful for some. Exercise may be helpful for others. Prayer, hugs, and at times just being with someone who is suffering or stressed can be exceptionally helpful.

Q: How do we continue to live our lives without fearing evil at every corner?
A: If we succumb to evil and allow fear to dictate our lives, we truly have sunken to our lowest level of functioning. Being wary is okay, even thinking about worst case scenarios is not awful and can be useful: however, fear is far from the best motivator.  A certain amount of anxiety is attendant to living. zbut the object is to live, and live a full life. The goal is to be driven by love and happiness.  Life is precious. I believe it is not only our right, but our obligation to do whatever we can to make ourselves happy as long as it does not knowingly involve hurting ourselves or someone else in the process. Joy is the thanks we say to God for being here.

woman crying

Q: What are some signs that your grief or fear are becoming abnormally strong or painful and what can one do about it?
A: Problems including but not limited to the following: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, recurring nightmares, early wakening, difficulty concentrating, confusion, feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness. Obsessive thinking, ruminating, dramatic change in appetite or any inability to function at one’s previous level in any or all spheres of life. (photo credit here)

If you feel you are no longer in charge of your life and are not getting enough support from family and friends, please seek appropriate professional help from your local clergy, support group, therapist, counselor, social worker, family physician, psychologist or psychiatrist.