The emotional impact of tragic loss

April 30, 2008
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Negative emotions, including anxiety, anger, guilt and sadness, often have debilitating physical and psychological effects. They suppress our immune system, make us vulnerable to serious illness, and narrow our attention and thinking, limiting our ability to carry out routine activities. When the negative emotional state is sadness, sorrow or grief, the narrow-mindedness and inactivity that results can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and severe depression.

My ISHN contribution last month reviewed six practical strategies for helping us heal emotionally from the darkest moments of our lives with courage and wisdom. I gleaned those, and the six presented here, from the profound book by Dr. Kathleen A. Brehony – “After the Darkest Hour: How Suffering Begins the Journey to Wisdom.”

Relevance to safety

Naturally this discussion is relevant to occupational safety and health. People deal with negative emotions throughout their lives, and the aftermath can put them at risk for injury. Indeed, serious injuries and fatalities happen, and the crippling emotional consequences to victims and their family and friends put people a risk for more injury. Let’s examine six tactics for building resilience to the emotional aftermath of a tragic loss.

1. Develop gratitude and optimism

Dr. Brehony reminds us how mere irritation and frustration can put us in an unhealthy emotional state. But just as quickly, we can calm down and think ourselves into a positive, optimistic disposition.

How?

We count our blessings. We are alive, and there are many people dealing with more tragic circumstances than ours. Consider ALS victims like Dick Sanderson, whose courage and grace I described in my July 2006 contribution to ISHN.

Philosopher Robert Solomon claims gratitude is not only “the best answer to the tragedies of life. It is the best approach to life itself.” Researchers learned people who wrote down their blessings each day in a diary scored higher on a variety of measures of well-being than those who did not. Plus, those who experienced daily gratitude by counting their blessings were more likely to help others – to actively care.

I detailed the benefits of optimism in a prior ISHN article (October 1996), emphasizing that optimists expect a worthwhile and positive future and work diligently to achieve such a destiny, armed with the self-fulfilling prophecy. Dr. Brehony distinguishes optimists from pessimists with “Optimism is joyful searching; pessimism is a prison of fear and clutching at illusionary safety” (p.218).

2. Find role models

From books, films and TV, people are attracted to heroes. I have friends who watch movies like “Braveheart” or “Saving Private Ryan” several times to increase their awareness, optimism and self-motivation.

In Dr. Brehony’s words, “At all times in life, but especially when we’re suffering, our heroes can be companions and illuminate the path as we forge ahead on our treacherous way” (p.220). She tells the story of Helen Keller who overcame her loss of hearing and sight at the age of 19 months to graduate cum laude from Radcliff College, where she studied Greek, Latin, German, French and English. She lectured around the world, bringing inspiration, courage and hope to people with and without physical and/or emotional challenges.

3. Maintain a sense of humor

With personal anecdotes and research evidence, Dr. Brehony discusses the power of humor and laughter in making the best out of the worst situations. Indeed, scientific studies have demonstrated the healing power of laughter, including its capacity to reduce distress, boost our immune system, and ease physical and psychological pain. I discussed the same benefits of a sense of humor in an earlier ISHN article (October 1997), and described five basic ways to get people to laugh. (Editor’s Note: Search www.ishn.com using keywords “humor” and “Geller” to find the article, “Lighten your load with laughter.”)

Dr. Brehony’s practical advice is straightforward, “Discover what makes you laugh and then seek out those people, movies, books and other activities and fill your life with them” (p.232).

4. Express your negative emotions

Based on theory, research and her clinical practice, Dr. Brehony makes a strong case for outwardly communicating our pain with verbal and written expression. Such self-expression is especially critical when the loss is sudden or traumatic. In her words, “The pain of suffering, if left unexpressed, incubates over years, decades, even lifetimes, and festers into a growing inner wound that will not heal” (p.231).

When coworkers are coping with the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s important to be an empathic listener to their traumatic stories. The more negative feelings revealed, the greater the emotional healing.

5. Practice silence, prayer and meditation

Dr. Brehony discusses the power of silence and solitude as “compelling instruments of transformation granting us moments of perfect opportunity to look deeply inside…as our inner wisdom points the way to healing” (p.240). She describes the results of empirical studies that demonstrated physical and psychological benefits of meditation, self-reflection and prayer, including lowered heart rate and blood pressure, reduced distress and pain, slower metabolic rate, and even healing effects on cancer and heart disease.

Given these benefits, shouldn’t we try to find some quiet time in the course of our workdays? Obviously, this can’t happen in the midst of multitasking in a noisy work environment. But how about during a solitary walk at break or lunch, without your cell phone?

6. Develop a warrior approach to life

This final strategy calls for a warrior approach to life with four attributes – awareness, bravery, compassion and discipline. Such warriors “are not war makers but peace lovers who live mindfully and with a genuineness and courage that are deeply rested in the heart” (p.246).

Warriors look outside and inside themselves to become authentically aware of “every moment of experience just as it is, without bias or judgment” (p.248). They have a brave, persevering, unconquerable spirit that chooses prevention over reaction with compassionate regard for others. Through rigorous self-discipline they develop mastery over their own body, mind and available resources in order to meet the many challenges of their lives. Are these not the ideal characteristics of a safety leader?

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