Finding the balance between responding to tragedy and compassion fatigue
It’s been two weeks since the earthquake in Haiti. Images of injured, hungry and homeless people still fill the nightly news. PSA’s, fund-raisers and telethons invite us to keep helping, to keep sending money.
I must confess that last week, I wept over each news report—this week, I have begun to avoid the news altogether.
It is almost too much to watch or think about, especially as we each go about our own daily routines, handling our own daily challenges, even though those challenges may be much less frightening or enduring than those of the people of Haiti. And Haiti is only one place that is full of suffering today.
How should you respond when faced with tragic and overwhelming events? Before you begin to help others:
• Take care of yourself physically. This includes eating nourishing food, getting enough sleep, doing mild exercise.
• Increase the time you spend with family members. Play together. Go for a walk together. Work on a household project together. Take time to appreciate each other with smiles and hugs and words of appreciation.
• Talk with other adults, which will help lessen your feelings of isolation and anxiety. This also provides a “reality check” on your reactions, helping you realize that your feelings are normal. Talking with others also helps bring feelings of helplessness or fear you may be experiencing back to reasonable parameters.
• Spend time with people you enjoy, doing things you enjoy.
• Give yourself permission to be distracted. It is equally important to be kind toward others and tolerant of ways in which their coping needs may differ from yours.
• Avoid real and symbolic tragedy for a while. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the television images, listen to the radio, or avoid news sources altogether. Periodically, you can ask others if there is any significant new information you should know.
• Engage in activities that reaffirm your sense of yourself and others as members of a caring community. Involve yourself in worship and prayer. Join a small group Bible study where you can feel free to explore how God wants us to live with one another.
• Work in a charitable organization within your own community. This can help lessen your feelings of helplessness in the face of so much need.
When you have taken care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually, you can then comfort and assist your children:
• Remain alert to the cues children will give about their thoughts and feelings, so that you can provide ongoing support for them.
“Will there be an earthquake here?” “There could be. We should check our plan for what to do and where to go. Having a plan will help us make sure we have emergency supplies, too”. OR “There are usually no earthquakes where we live. But this is a good reminder that we should have an emergency plan and extra supplies for our family. Let’s make a plan now.”
• Remember that it is important to answer the questions children and youth are actually asking and not the ones you think they are asking.
“Who will take care of those children on TV?” “There are lots of people from all over the world who are helping the people in Haiti and they are making sure that every child will have a place to live, just like you have lots of family and friends who would look after you. Let’s make a list of people who would help our family.”
• Most importantly, you can listen to what children and youth have to say, not only in order to minister to them, but in order to learn from them. In crisis situations children will frequently express what others are afraid to say, or will give voice to emotions adults have hidden, even from themselves. Children and youth, as well as adults, are capable of a profound ministry in the face of tragedy.
“If you were in Haiti now, what help would you want? How do you think our family could be ready for an emergency? How do you think our family can help others?”
It is perhaps one of the most difficult things we do, to let go of our fear. However, in our Christian journey, we are reminded over and over, to trust God. That doesn’t mean we will be spared from tragedy. It doesn’t mean our lives will always be serene and simple. It doesn’t even mean we will always have an easy, peaceful feeling. It does mean that no matter what happens, we know that because of our relationship with God and our place in the Body of Christ, the resources will be there to give us comfort, faith and hope and we will get through it.
And when we have arrived at this knowing, we can be God’s truest and most helpful ambassadors to others.
You can read more about how to respond to frightening and overwhelming events in the free LOGOS Ministry resource “Terror and Tragedy: Responding to Our Children and Youth”. Send your email request directly to firstname.lastname@example.org