Fast Fact and Concept #50: Disaster: Coping with Tragedy

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Title: Fast Fact and Concept #50: Disaster: Coping with Tragedy

Author(s): Ambuel, Bruce

This is a very difficult time for each of us individually, for our community and for our country. The terrorist attacks of September 11 are a profound tragedy. Each of us is, no doubt, experiencing many different feelings - sadness, anxiety, anger, helplessness, a sense of unreality, insecurity, profound grief. Strong feelings are normal. Whatever you are feeling is OK.

Many of us may also have some difficulty concentrating throughout the day. We may find ourselves suddenly tearful at unexpected moments. We may have difficulty sleeping at night. These are normal reactions to a major loss. Be gentle and accepting with your self, and understand that these feelings and experiences are your way of coping. Our strong feelings and reactions to this tragedy may last for an extended period of time. This is normal following a major disaster. At this point in time we don't have important information. Who has been injured and who has died? How did these tragedies come about? Who is responsible for planning them and carrying them out? As we learn more about what has happened, what we have lost, and who is responsible, we will continue to experience a range of emotions. The magnitude of this tragedy will be imprinted in out hearts and minds. Be aware that some members of our community will suffer a very personal loss-the injury or death of a friend, colleague or family member. Some may already know about such a personal loss, while others may learn of the injury or death of family, friends or colleagues in the coming hours or days. If you know someone who has suffered such a loss, offer them your support and love. If you have suffered such a personal loss yourself please reach out to friends and colleagues.

The importance of doing our job

At a time like this it is important to remind our selves that each patient who walks in our clinic door is seeking our help as they cope with their own illness, injury or concern. What we can offer to each of our patients is a healing relationship. The first step in creating this healing relationship is giving our complete attention to the individual patient. In spite of the turmoil in the world around us, our job remains tending to the healing of the individual, serving witness to the individual's suffering, treating the individual's disease or injury, sustaining the individual's health. In the coming days we will need to work to maintain each patient's concerns as our top priority, and resist the temptation to be distracted from this mission by the swirl of events around us. As we face this challenge, let us rededicate ourselves to providing a compassionate, friendly and supportive environment to each patient.

What can you do:

It is natural to feel helpless at a time like this. Here are some steps you can take to help yourself and others.

- Talk with friends, family and coworkers about what you are feeling and thinking.

- Listen to and read the news. Obtain accurate information, as it becomes available. At the same time allow yourself to break away from the intense news coverage for periods of time. Each of us needs accurate information, but we also need time away from the media coverage to think and digest what we have seen and heard.

- Seek professional help for yourself or others if you are concerned that your emotions and thoughts are out of control, leading to depression or anxiety that inactivates you. Contact your Employee Assistance Program, your primary care physician, or a local mental health clinic.

- Guard against prejudice and racism. Early speculation has focused upon a link between the attack and terrorists that are political extremists and fundamentalist Muslim. Our Islamic patients and our Islamic community in the United States will feel especially vulnerable at this time. Islam is not a violent religion and does not promote terrorism. Extremists carried out these acts of terror. Speak out if you hear prejudice or racism. Caution others to avoid inappropriate generalizations about any religious, racial or ethnic group.

- Make sure that your own inevitable anger serves the cause of justice and fairness, not prejudice and blind revenge.

- Think about what has ultimate importance and meaning in your life. If you are religious or spiritual, seek out the comfort and perspective that can come from spiritual literature, prayer, meditation, and your religious community.

- Reflect on fundamental principles of our democracy. This attack is an assault against our civil government and other democracies throughout the world. What is it we value in our system of government? What principles and ideals do we want to nurture and strengthen through this crisis?

- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has activated the National Disaster Medical System. Health care professionals may contact their local hospital to find out how they might participate.

- Parents can find advice for children at the National Association of School Psychologists web site: http://www.nasponline.org.

- Donate blood at your local blood center.

- Contact the American Red Cross to donate money and ask about the need for clothing, food, etc. The Red Cross takes a central leadership role in disaster relief efforts.
Copyright and Referencing Information: Users are free to download and distribute Fast Facts for educational purposes only. Citation for referencing. Fast Fact and Concept #50 Ambuel B. Disaster: Coping with Tragedy. September, 2001. End-of-Life Physician Education Resource Center www.eperc.mcw.edu.

Disclaimer: Fast Facts provide educational information, this information is not medical advice. Health care providers should exercise their own independent clinical judgment. Some Fast Fact information cites the use of a product in dosage, for an indication, or in a manner other than that recommended in the product labeling. Accordingly, the official prescribing information should be consulted before any such product is used.

Creation Date: 8/2001

Format: Handouts

Purpose: Self-Study Guide, Teaching

Training: Fellows, 1st/2nd Year Medical Students, 3rd/4th Year Medical Students, PGY1 (Interns), PGY2-6, Physicians in Practice
Specialty: Anesthesiology, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, General Internal Medicine, Geriatrics, Hematology/Oncology, Neurology, OB/GYN, Ophthalmology, Pulmonary/Critical Care, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Surgery
Non-Physician: Clergy/Chaplains, General Public, Graduate Students, Lawyers, Patients/Families, Nurses, Social Workers

Keyword(s): Personal reflection, Professional burnout

The Fast Facts series is distributed for educational use only and does not constitute medical advice. For the most current version of Fast Facts visit the EPERC web site at www.eperc.mcw.edu. This mirror version is provided subject to copyright restrictions for educational use within the Inter-Instutional Collaborating Network on End-of-Life Care (IICN).