Last week we re-posted from 2016 a piece by Dr. Carlea Dries on coping with holiday grief. This year Carlea would also like to add her thoughts on how best to help others who are grieving, not only during the holidays, but anytime. Note the emphasis on actions.

 REACHING OUT TO THE GRIEVING

It seems that when the topic of personal grief comes up, especially during the holidays, most of the emphasis is directed at those who have suffered a loss. What’s often overlooked is giving some guidance to those who want to reach out and provide care for others who are working through loss and grief.

 Along those lines, I (Carlea) think it’s important to try and avoid “conversational narcissism,” or making it all about you. This is a fairly common action of making your experience the center of conversation, which distracts everyone from the original focus. An example would be sharing your own story of loss, comparable or not, with someone you were trying comfort. Thus, you might say something like, “I remember when my dog died. I got over it by getting a new dog. That’s all you need to do.” Or, “I remember when my husband died. I joined a social club and met all kinds of new people, even some interesting gentlemen!”

 Of course, when you say such things you are trying to help by giving suggestions and a message of hope. Unfortunately, you may actually be interrupting sufferers from “feeling their grief,” something they must allow themselves to do. Also, comments like those above run the risk of trivializing the situation for the grieving party. “That’s all you have to do.” Your molehill may be a mountain for the grieving. Remember, your comments are coming from a context of having already dealt with your grief. Your listener, however, is not there yet, but is still in the “dealing with it” phase. You can be their “coping Sherpa” but on their schedule, not yours.

 Another danger with conversational narcissism is that listeners may think you are judging them for their grief. You comments may make them feel weak, inferior, guilty, and incapable of coping with their grief.

 In interactions with those feeling loss, instead of focusing on you, try to find ways to provide support in more neutral ways: Deliver a meal; send a care package; shovel the sidewalks or driveway; do a load of laundry. Remember, your grieving friends will eventually be ready to move on from “feeling their grief” to “acting their grief” in positive ways. In fact, as they move toward active strategies to re-engage with life in ways that fit their needs and personality, they may even ask for your advice or opinion about the types of things you did to cope.

 The other day, I (Carlea) was speaking with a veteran who gave an interesting perspective on how he continues to cope with the losses he experienced while in the service many years ago:

 “I celebrate their memories by fulfilling their bucket lists. I do what I can to continue their lives. I give hope for those who are lacking it. I don’t attend pity parties. I read to those who lost sight because even though I lost things, I still can see. I get groceries for those who lost limbs. I do what good I can because there was a reason I was spared.”

 

 

I was reading one of those annual letters many families send out during the Christmas season. This particular one provided an excellent example of coping with grief at this special time of year. The writer’s family would be having Christmas for the first time without a woman who was a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother for various members of the family. The writer noted how much the deceased loved Christmas, so the family would proudly celebrate her memory over the holidays.

The word that caught my eye was “celebrate.” Most people do not associate this word with loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. In fact, they might expect to see the word “mourn” instead: “We will mourn her memory over the holidays.”

Mourning is indeed an important part of the grieving process, but in the long run, we will cope much better with personal loss if we resolve to honor departed loved ones by celebrating their memory, and focusing on how much they contributed to our life.

With that message in mind, we’re re-posting a piece that Dr. Carlea Dries wrote that we put on the blog December 12, 2016. (You can find Carlea’s bio in the “Hosts” link on the homepage of this blog.)

HOLIDAY GRIEF

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… except when it’s not. 

The holidays usually mean the coming together of family members. Ordinarily this is a welcome time of festive gatherings, exchanging of presents, and special memories made near a roaring fireplace. For some, however, this Norman Rockwell image is drastically different from reality, particularly when recent loss of a loved one is involved. Let’s note that “loss” is not limited to the death; it can also include divorce, hospitalization, incarceration, active duty without a holiday leave, or a family member who moved away. 

Recently, I (Carlea) attended the funeral for my great aunt. Though Marge was 93 and in failing health, her death hit our family rather hard, especially her daughters and sister (my grandmother, who is now the only one left of the original 11 siblings). The sermon during the church service (paraphrased herein) highlighted how this first holiday is going to be different: “You’ll notice the quiet. You’ll notice the missing [specialty food]. You’ll notice the missing chair at the table.” 

While I was at the repast, a good friend of mine (still Carlea) texted to say that her parents are getting divorced after more than thirty years of marriage. This news was unexpected and rendered her numb. She just kept asking how it could be real and why, if it had to happen, it had to come so close to Hanukkah. This was supposed to be the first time she would be hosting her family, and now everything was changing. 

How do you cope with the first holiday season in the “next normal” or “new normal”? How do you hold on to a sense of control when things are clearly out of your control?

The most important thing to do, as we’ve discussed in other blog posts, is to recognize what is in your circle of power. My grandmother can’t bring her sister back. My friend can’t convince her parents to stay together. So they must try to do what they can: accept what it is and move forward from that point. Yes, that’s easier typed than done.

Some feel consoled by leaving a place at the table for the absent person, but many others find that much more discomforting because it is a visual reminder of the vacancy. You may, therefore, choose to remember the person in a smaller way. I (Carlea again) have made ornaments with pictures of departed relatives, reminding me of times we spent together. Every year for Thanksgiving, my mother makes her aunt’s stuffing (though Aunt Petronella called it “dressing”). My mother-in-law uses a picture of her mother as the angel for her crèche. A friend video-chats with her husband who is stationed overseas. For the past 14 years, my father brings homemade goodies to the staff at the nursing home where his parents finished their earthly stories. A colleague mentioned that she has a “moment of reflection” during which everyone present shares a memory, story, or image of those who cannot be with them – one even sings a favorite song! These simple gestures become meaningful traditions that do not overwhelm us with intense feelings of loss. Rather, they celebrate the lives and connections we had to those who are absent. 

Other coping suggestions include planning a totally new activity that literally takes you away from the familiar reminders of the absent one. Go on a mini-vacation. Celebrate with a different group of people. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Keep your mind and body distracted, not to the point where you are ignoring, denying, or detaching from the loss, but to keep you focused on something productive instead of painful. 

No matter what options you are comfortable choosing, you must give yourself permission to feel. There will be moments when you want to do nothing but sit in silence. Other times you will want to do nothing but scream. You might even find yourself smiling or laughing and then feel guilty because how dare you be happy when you are missing someone?! Have “the big, snotty cry” if that is what you want to do. Let yourself feel. Take the time you need. As we said in another posting, it’s okay to say “no” to invitations; just be sure you don’t let your mourning stop you from living.  

There was also a message of comfort in the sermon for my Aunt (again paraphrased): Marge lives on in your hearts and memories. If you listen in the quiet, you can hear her. If you feel in the still, you can sense her. Remembering means no one ever leaves.

You might not feel better today. You might not feel better tomorrow. But at some point, you will feel that you have moved to the next normal and that will be the next best thing.

 

 

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: MORE THAN A POWER TRIP, AND WITH COPING LESSONS FOR US ALL

I’ve noticed that when news commentators discuss cases of sexual harassment that are popping up with regularity, they usually assert that “power” is the primary motivation behind harassment actions. That is, perpetrators act to remind their victims (and, I might add, themselves!) which party is dominant in their interactions.

True enough, but from a psychological perspective I think we need to add two additional elements to the equation, elements usually overlooked, but important on several levels. First of all, they give us additional insights into the motives behind molesters. Secondly, they help us better understand the power motive referred to earlier. Finally, they provide us with coping lessons that apply to virtually any social situation.

The first element is pretty simple: Many molesters, for reasons owing to their upbringing, view victims as sex objects. For instance, a man who repeatedly gropes, tickles, squeezes, etc. women, sees them primarily as objects for him to “play with.” This perception, of course, is immature and narcissistic, and betrays in the perpetrator not only feelings of dominance, but also a sense of entitlement. Whether the relationship is professional, family, friendship, or romantic, this man’s arrested psychological growth renders him largely incapable of maintaining social interactions based on acceptance, equality, and respectful partnership.

The second element involves competition. For whatever reason, and probably at a sub-conscious level, molesters see themselves in competition with their victims, and suffer intense unconscious anxiety over it because their insecurities and weak self-esteem produce fear that the victim will win. Again, in the case of a man showing a pattern of harassing women, at some level he feels he must compete with women because they are a threat to his already feeble self-esteem.  Deep in the valleys of his insecure, immature mind, he has this viral fear of losing to a superior opponent. These anxieties motivate him to compete (metaphorically) and demonstrate his power over women. How? Well, because he sees women as sex objects, the competition is expressed in molesting actions that dehumanize them and allow him to proclaim to himself, “I WIN!”

OK, let’s discard the sexual harassment context and look at any of your relationships that are presenting you with coping challenges. Again, forget the harassment issue and focus on a relationship that is causing you difficulty and anxiety. The problem could be with a friend, co-worker, spouse, parent, child, or whomever. As a first step in helping you begin to attack the coping challenge and find actions that might help you move toward a resolution of the conflict, use the comments above to guide you toward some specific questions. As always, focus on the issue at hand and keep your questions within the basic boundaries of, “What parts of this situation are under my control?”

Ask yourself: How do I really see this person? Do I feel in competition with him or her? Do I feel I will lose the competition? Does the person arouse anxiety and insecurities in me? Am I behaving in childish ways toward the person? (If you can’t relate to “childish” simply ask yourself if you deal with the person like you’re on the playground during recess in the third grade.)

What I’m saying here is that some of the dynamics of the molester (that is, insecurity, immaturity, narcissism, anxiety, fear of competition and losing that competition) are at work in your troubling relationships. If you ask yourself some brutally frank questions about your possible motives and insecurities, and work hard to confront your fears with some honest answers, you are well on the way to more effective coping.

Whether we’re talking about the sexual molesters in the news, or your everyday rocky relationships with family or colleagues or friends, the fundamental problem boils down to what Schnarch, a social psychologist, calls differentiation.

Simply put, if you are a differentiated person, you are able to maintain your individuality, your sense of self, in your relationships with others. You can share, cooperate, compromise, respect those who disagree with you, and even admit you’re wrong. But through it all you remain yourself. You do not subjugate yourself to the will of the other, nor do you feel compelled to assert power and dominance over the other. You can work with others from a context of personal stability and self-assurance, not from a context of weakness, insecurity, and dependency. In short, you are “secure in your own skin.”

On the other hand, those low in differentiation might constantly look for attention and approval from the other person. Is that you? Do you suffocate others with demands, possessiveness, and jealousy, forcing them to meet your wants and needs? Those low in differentiation might also be narcissistic “me” oriented people who deny responsibility for any problems in a relationship, and simply see others as objects to manipulate for self-glorification. Is that you? Do you see others as opponents to defeat and belittle so you can see yourself as dominant? Do you regularly and hypocritically cast blame on others while never considering your own role in causing problems?

Think about these comments as you pose to yourself the questions above. If you’re honest with yourself you can greatly improve your self-understanding, your everyday coping skills, and the quality of your interactions with others. You may even realize that those low in differentiation, a personality and behavior profile that includes molesters, are a truly pathetic lot who may deserve counseling, but not our sympathy.

ALCOHOLISM, GLOBAL WARMING, AND COPING

One of the greatest obstacles to effective coping is losing focus and concentrating on irrelevant aspects of the problem. Imagine talking to a 48 year-old man who has panic attacks and other social anxieties. He heads for counseling, and when asked, “How would you describe your problem?” he responds, “I remember when I was in the fifth grade…….” Whoa, buddy! Fifth grade? You want to focus on events that took place nearly 40 years ago? Let’s back up and focus on describing your problem in the here-and-now.

In the 1970s there was a debate in psychology fueled by Mark and Linda Sobell’s research on alcohol consumption by alcoholics. The debate, a pseudo-debate really, considered the question, “Can the alcoholic learn to drink socially?” The Sobells said their research suggested the answer is “Yes.”

The question is considered both absurd and dangerous by rehabilitation groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Such programs are based on the view that the alcoholic brain is addicted to alcohol in such a way that controlled, moderate consumption is virtually impossible to achieve. Any success will be short-lived, and over time the alcoholic will descend into the uncontrollable drinking that led their acquaintances and family to label them as alcoholics. In the words of a Kenny Chesney country song about tequila, “One is one too many, one more is never enough.” (Who needs psychological research when there are country songs to teach us life’s truths?)

Earlier I called the moderate drinking debate a pseudo-debate. Why? Well, if someone has a problem with alcohol consumption, why on earth would they want to focus their coping efforts on controlling the problem only partially by moderating their consumption? Am I missing something here? Isn’t there always a chance of “slipping” out of the moderation? Why would someone want to take that chance?

We have someone with a severe alcohol problem, someone who has perhaps lost job, self-respect, and family, someone who perhaps has been arrested as a result of abusive drinking. Isn’t trying to teach him or her moderate drinking gambling with disaster? You want that person to learn moderate social drinking and hope that the moderation lasts? You want that person to gamble that there will be no chance of a “slip” into the former habits?

Why not just ask the alcoholic to stand in front of five explosive mines on the ground, explain that only one is active, and then say, “Pick one to step on!” Wouldn’t it be wiser to turn around and walk away? By the same token, wouldn’t the best strategy for an abusive drinker be total abstinence?

Wouldn’t the logical approach for the alcoholic be to accept, “I can control my thinking and actions except when I am drinking. Therefore, I must take better control of life, especially my relationship with alcohol, by abstaining completely. That’s the only way I’m on safe ground.” The point is, focusing on moderate drinking is poor coping because it runs the risk of personal tragedy. That focus is dangerously misplaced.

I see an analogy here with the global warming debate. People ask, “Is global warming real? If so, is it caused by us?” Is that the focus you want, simply looking for someone to blame for the rise in annual earth temperature? Isn’t that focus irrelevant to the core issue: A clean environment? Shouldn’t we view laws geared to reducing carbon emissions as laws that will give us cleaner air to breathe? Shouldn’t we see such laws as showing that we can exercise some control and keep our environment clean and healthy?

If we do value such things, what’s all this fuss about climate change? How many people are getting all stressed out fighting and arguing about whether it’s real or not, man-made or not, or some dastardly plot by Big Brother to subjugate all of us into mindless slaves? Why do we feel so compelled to take an issue that impacts our physical health and psychological well-being, and force it into a liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, us vs. them conflict?

I’ve heard people say, “Those global warming freaks just want to raise taxes on businesses and put people out of work!” Seriously? What responsible member of society wants to put people out of work?

Maybe all the “freaks” want is to breathe cleaner air, and to strategize with new and emerging industries and technologies about how to do it. Wouldn’t developing such strategies be a great example of effective coping by making us feel empowered to exercise some control over our physical and psychological welfare? Surely, supporting policies that reduce pollutants does not inherently mean humans are causing climate change; it means we want to live in a cleaner environment.

Why is it so important to some people to declare that alcoholics can learn to drink socially, or that the earth isn’t warming? In a coping context, those arguments are examples of losing focus and taking our eye off the ball. In one case our focus should be on maximizing an alcohol abuser’s prospects for a safe and productive life; in the other case the focus should be on keeping our “home” clean.

Here’s our coping lesson: You have a problem facing you? To cope effectively with it you must define the parameters of the problem and focus your coping strategies within those parameters. Don’t let others distract you and lead you into irrelevant areas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOUR ACTIONS CAN INFLUENCE YOUR THOUGHTS

Readers of this blog know that the first step in effective coping is understanding that there are only two things you can control: Your thoughts and your actions. You can get into all sorts of coping difficulties when you venture out of that personal control circle, such as trying to control other people.

Time and again we have seen students whose preparation strategy for an upcoming test is to try and influence the professor. “Can you ask mostly multiple-choice? The material seems best for that.” “Can you give me extra time? I’m really swamped with other courses.” These students head down a futile blind alley trying to control what they cannot………..the professor’s behavior! If they focused on what they can control, their preparation for the test, they would be in a lot better shape.

You might be nervous about a job interview because you have no idea what questions the interviewer will ask you. Of course you don’t! That’s something out of your circle of control, so forget about it. Focus on how to prepare, which is in your control circle, for all sorts of questions. That preparation might require you to do research on the company, and to think creatively about your strengths and how they would fit the characteristics of this organization.

One thing you should not do is rely exclusively (the key word in this sentence) on positive thinking for your preparation. “There’s really no need to sweat it. I can handle myself.” Trust us, folks, the power of positive thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be, UNLESS that thinking is based on results from positive actions.

It’s great to be optimistic about life, but there’s a danger in being unrealistic in your optimism. We know a famous psychologist who said that growing up he truly believed he could be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. “Sometime in college I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Contrary to what my folks always told me, I came to the realization that living in America did not mean that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. No dream was too big, they always said. Well, playing for the Cubbies was too big.”

The power of positive thinking is limited. The power of positive actions, however, is unlimited. One of the secrets to effective coping is to engage in positive actions. By positive we mean actions that bring both you and others satisfaction and comfort. Seeing yourself perform these positive actions will give you a sense of empowerment, and will also invest you with optimistic thinking that is based on reality, not on a pipe-dream.

How often do you get caught up in irrational thinking? Examples would be: “I must succeed in everything I do or I’m a failure.” “I must be admired and respected by everyone or I’m worthless.” “That mistake I made at work today is going to cost me my job. I’m better off quitting.” “I struck out three times in our game today. That does it. I’m batting .268 but it’s clear I’m a burden to the team and I’m quitting.” “The boss gave the project to my colleague. She obviously thinks I’m incompetent.”

Such thoughts are demoralizing and make you vulnerable to depression. Telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way” is futile. Instead, focus on actions you can take. “I need to talk to my supervisor about how I can guard against making a mistake like that in the future.” “That pitcher really fooled me with his curve ball. I need to study the tapes plus take more batting practice against that kind of pitch.” “I need to let my colleague know I’m available to help should she need it. I also need to share with the boss some ideas I have for other projects.”

There’s never any guarantee you will succeed. But by focusing on positive actions you can take, at least you’re teaching yourself to persevere even when frustrated; you’re showing yourself that you are self-sufficient enough to engage in some proactive actions; and you’re doing things that give you a chance to feel good about yourself. Such positive possibilities certainly outweigh marching in your personal pity parade.

 

ADULT ADHD IS PERFECT COPING MODEL

I once met a gentleman at a social event who was President of a major corporation. We hadn’t been chatting long before it became clear to me that this was one impressive guy, and it was easy to understand how he ended up at the top of the “business ladder.”

It was clear he wanted to talk about psychology, which was fine with me. At one point he volunteered that he had ADHD, and I asked him what sort of concessions he had to make to succeed in his world. In so many words, of course, I was asking him how he coped. To paraphrase his reply:

“I really became aware of my condition when I was in college. Up to that time I had a lot of trouble focusing on things, carrying through with my plans, and keeping myself occupied with the task at hand. In high school I could coast along, but college was another matter. I took a basic psychology course in my freshman year and one day I made an appointment with the professor. I  told him my symptoms and he suggested ADHD. That changed my whole life.”

He went on to tell me how he learned all he could about his condition and what steps he could take to compensate for it and be a successful student. As we continued to chat I began to see the specific characteristics that explained why I was impressed with him: His level of achievement motivation was clearly off the charts at the high end; his work ethic was unmatched by anyone I had ever known; his energy level was unbounded; he was articulate and a clear thinker.

He went on to tell me he continued the coping strategies he developed in college. Specifically he noted that he gets up an hour earlier than necessary to be at work at the time he wants to arrive. “During that hour I map out my day, literally writing down meetings I have, memos I need to write, tasks I need to assign to others, and so on. To do all that, of course, I have to refer to a complete list of what I had done the previous day and what was still on the list. I also refer to my appointment book for the upcoming day.”

As soon as he gets to work (about an hour before anyone else on his office floor) he puts in a call to his Executive Associate. “She knows the daily routine and she knows the call is coming, so I’m not disrupting her own early morning schedule. We go over everything on the list I have prepared for the day. We spend about 15 minutes adding some things, deleting some things, and editing others. As soon as she gets to her office, which is next to mine, we go over things again and I’m now ready to face the day.”

Not surprisingly the assistant was at this function with him, literally only a few feet away. In fact, during our brief conversation she intercepted others coming to chat with him, saying something like, “Give him a minute and he’ll be right with you. So how have you been?” Had she not done so, she knew his attention would have been diverted to the newcomer and my conversation with him would have ended, hanging in the air.

He told me his Executive Associate is indispensable as he goes through the day. “She keeps me on schedule, keeps me on track during meetings, and knows that when something unexpected comes up, she must keep it under wraps until we get together at the end of the office work-day. Then, together, we discuss where the matter belongs for my evening and the next day.”

It is no exaggeration to say that by the time our conversation had reached this point I was literally exhausted. The energy level he expended telling me his story was intense and required some mental effort just to follow him! Still, his words and fast presentation style showed considerable sophistication. I have had interactions with people who, in my estimation, would clearly be diagnosed with ADHD. Unlike this gentleman, however, there was little underlying structure or logical organization to their words, and trying to follow them was like trying to converse with a fly.

Our CEO’s approach to each day is a model of effective coping: He does not allow his ADHD to define who he is; he attacks the day as a challenge to be met within the realities of his condition, not something to be avoided because of his condition; he develops a strategic plan not only to take on the things he knows are ahead, but a plan that also allows him to deal with unexpected contingencies; he enlists the help of someone else in carrying out his plan, admitting that he can’t do it all alone, and that there is no shame in reaching out to another person.

In short, this man exemplified principles of good coping, based on focus, organization, and a realistic acceptance of his limitations.

I recently saw a newspaper piece by Kristin Woodling, owner of Pamper Your Mind, a private counseling practice. She was describing the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs and noted that those characteristics are typical of ADHD diagnoses: high energy, vision, creativity, insight, impulsiveness, and risk-taking. She noted that the trick for them is to channel these traits so they can lead to productive results.

My CEO friend used his executive assistant to help him channel his traits that, unchecked, could produce haphazard decisions, projects hanging undone, and general disorganization that would frustrate all involved. These are lessons for all of us. Coping with everyday life often requires us to meet challenges by taking risks, engaging in creative strategies to deal with problems, organizing our efforts, maintaining our energy level to persevere, and enlisting the assistance of someone trustworthy.  Go for it!

DO WE SEND IN COUNSELORS TOO SOON?

A recurring theme in this blog is the damaging effects of Denial. Refusing to face challenges establishes an avoidance pattern totally incompatible with effective coping. You all know the routine. Someone you know has undergone some traumatic or upsetting event. You reach out to them and they respond, “I don’t want to talk about it!” Denial rears its ugly head. But is it ugly in this case?

Let’s fine tune our look at Denial and ask if it can ever be helpful in the coping process. For instance, consider horrific events like a mass shooting at a school (along the lines of Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Columbine). In the immediate aftermath of such tragedies, we hear officials say something like, “Classes will resume after a day of remembrance. Counselors will be available for anyone feeling the need for help.”

Counselors will be available……..and fast (this is called Immediate Crisis Debriefing). After all, psychologists know that letting stress from a traumatic event fester can lead to severe emotional problems down the road. So we need to nip things in the bud right away.

Sounds good, but there is research showing that immediate crisis debriefing is often ineffective and in some cases even makes things worse for victims. How can this be? How can talking with a counselor about your anxieties resulting from a trauma you experienced not help you? Let’s consider two possibilities.

First of all, maybe the debriefing took place too soon. Whenever a traumatic event strikes us, our brain needs time to process the event. Sometimes for days we can be in somewhat of a fog over what happened. At a conscious level we seem to be denying the event when we say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

At a sub-conscious level, however, once the emotional reactions begin to subside, our brain is processing and sorting and attempting to make sense of it all. Talking about it during that period may be quite ineffective because the cathartic restructuring of our thoughts resulting from the counseling is premature. The brain is not ready to process the healing.

A second potential problem with immediate debriefing is that it may give the victim a false sense of security. Thus, several weeks after the event you may say to a friend, “You know, you still seem a little out of sorts about it. Maybe you should see a counselor.” The victim responds, “No problem, I already talked to a counselor. Everything’s cool.”

But everything is not cool because the “counseling” took place before the victim was cognitively prepared to profit from it. In a sense, the counseling never took place. Unfortunately, the victim, feeling reassured from talking with a counselor, has trouble recognizing the coping problem.

All this raises the crucial question: When is the right time to encourage a victim of a traumatic event to receive counseling? One week later? Six weeks? Several months? Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer that would be appropriate in every case. That reality can make it difficult for a friend or relative to know when to reach out to a victim, and when to back off for awhile.

If the victim is a relative or a close friend, the odds are you will be able to sense that he or she is not progressing well following the event. Just remember, for a few days following the trauma that is to be expected. Once several weeks have gone by, however, and you still sense poor coping, it is probably best to get more forceful in getting the victim out of the denial and avoidance pattern that is still present. Again, there is no hard and fast rule to follow here, so you have to depend on your instincts. When we’re talking about a good friend or close relative you know well, those instincts can often be quite accurate.

One of my students told me a story that shows how easy it is to think you have “put a trauma to rest” in your mind. About four weeks after 9/11, this student went home for Fall break. She lived in New Jersey and the World Trade Center had always been plainly visible from her bedroom.

That night she crawled into bed and reflexively turned toward her window to say goodnight to the twin towers, her “guardian angels” since she was a child. “My God!” she said to herself, “they’re gone!” She was surprised at how startled she was because she knew they were destroyed in the attack four weeks earlier. “In a sense,” she told me, “I guess I had not really processed the reality directly, and at some level in my mind there was denial that the event occurred. It’s fascinating because I had talked about the event several times with my parents on the phone and I had obviously seen news clips on TV. But there had been no direct contact until that night in my bedroom. In that sense, I had not really directly experienced the reality of the event.”

My student was not suffering from PTSD, but her story illustrates the dynamics of recovery from trauma. At some level, and at some point in time, the victim must “establish contact” with the reality of the event. How this is done varies from person to person.

For some, mentally reliving or rehearsing an event and talking about it is sufficient. Others, however, may require something more tangible. Many Vietnam veterans find remarkably positive effects from visiting “The Wall” in Washington, just as survivors of the Orlando Pulse Club mass shooting find solace when standing next to the Club. WWII veterans have had similar cathartic experiences visiting Pearl Harbor or the beaches of Normandy. The grief-stricken can often cope with a traumatic loss better by visiting the grave of the lost one. Our blog posting of July 14, 2016 showed how a victim of a traumatic car accident was helped by visiting the accident site.

The important point here, however, is that “making contact,” whether mentally or physically present, is most likely to be beneficial when there is a time gap between the event and the safe contact. Time must be allowed for the mind to process the event. This processing delay may look like Denial to an outside observer, but it is absolutely essential before the mind can begin the healing process. If crisis debriefing takes place too soon, that healing is obstructed.

So when you see a friend troubled by an extremely upsetting event (and that can include a romantic breakup), and they don’t want to talk about it right away, give them a break. Grant them some “denial breathing room” for a period of time. That period will probably be longer for serious trauma, such as a rape or near-death experience, compared to milder events, such as a romantic partner announcing, “I hope we can still be friends.” In either case, however, allowing a victim some time to process the event will make your helping actions more effective.