The recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington have deeply affected the American people in an unprecedented manner. We must not underestimate, nor must we overestimate, the psychological damage we have endured.
A balance of dealing with our grief and moving forward with our lives is in our best interest — and in the best interest of America.
Every person is different in the way they respond to the grief that we are experiencing. Grief is borne quietly by some and noisily by other.
I confess to openly shedding tears as I watched the tragedy unfold on the 24-hour newscasts. The pain is no less great for the stoic; perhaps it is even greater. There is no one way to work through grief, but our psychological health is dependent upon our ability to do so. To repress or ignore our feelings is not healthy. Unresolved grief makes living a mentally healthy life impossible.
As different as we are, we experience the same stages of grief.
The first is the shock, the denial and the disbelief. The word “surreal” was used over and over to describe the feelings of persons watching the tragedy unfold. In events like this terrorist attack, the second stage is one of fright and clinging behavior. People felt the need to be with their families and friends, to hug their spouse and children. Are the terrorist acts over? Are biological and chemical warfare attacks next?
Depression, apathy, anger and sometimes reclusiveness are a part of the third stage. I personally became angry with the minority of the gas distributors who were raising gas prices, persons who were panicky in line to purchase gas, persons selling their stocks and most of all the cowardly terrorist. The final stage is one of resolution. It is the acceptance of what has happened, the acceptance that our world has changed, acceptance that we are vulnerable, acceptance that we are hated by some simply because we are Americans. The resolution also includes positive things: Americans are united in a manner unprecedented since World War II. Our religious faiths have deepened.
We have clarified some of our values and those platitudes about God, family; friends have taken on more meaning for us.
Most important is a personal resolve that this tragic event will not rob me, nor my family and friends, of living an abundant life.
How do we help our employees, colleagues work through grief?
The most important role we can fill is that of a compassionate listener. Understand that each individual grieves in a different manner and that the time frame for moving through the stages of grief is different for different individuals. Realize that people may have symptom- free periods of time and then revert to one of the stages of grief. Look for changes in work performance; longer lunch times, late arrivals, poor production and behavioral changes, such as increased drinking.
To varying degrees, we each have a limited capacity for dealing with negative emotions. Know your employees. Have they recently dealt with death, sickness, divorce, or serious financial problems? If so, they may be more vulnerable to the tragedy.
Your employees and co-workers are likely to be in different stages of life and have had different life experiences. If we recognize this fact, we can be a more compassionate listener.
Were any of your employees directly affected by the loss of a family member or friend? Some of the experiences that I have found to affect a person’s grief reactions to the terrorist act are: Vietnam War experience, recent family tragedy, insecurity in relationships and early negative childhood experiences. The stages of life are also transparent in how persons react. The young person who has never experienced a tragedy in their life, the young wife who fears that her husband’s reserve unit will be called for active duty, the young parents who wonder what kind of world will their children inherit and feeling powerless to change that world, the parents of children who are prime military draft age or already in the military. A person who is nearing retirement and realizes that his “nest egg” for retirement may be in jeopardy, the businessman whose business is negatively affected or the employee that fear for his employment are all in different stages of their life.
William Bridges talks of Transitions In Life. He teaches that to grieve, “Endings” play an important role in successfully moving through the transition. The terrorist attacks were an ending to a secure and peaceful America. The second stage of the transition is the confusion and what happens next. Where do I go from here and what do I do?”
The final stage is one in which we find a new purpose and new beginnings.
Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.