Friday 30 September 2016

Answers to what exactly happened won't ease pain

Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30

Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States (left), helps Neil Sands, president of the Irish Network Bay Area, lay an Irish flag on two wreaths at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters
Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States (left), helps Neil Sands, president of the Irish Network Bay Area, lay an Irish flag on two wreaths at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters

I listened to my wife describing the awful tragedy that was emerging in Berkeley, California, and I was hit with such a feeling of anxiety and sadness that I didn't say anything for a while. Indeed, my wife wondered if I had even heard her.

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I was a bit taken aback by the strength of my own emotional response. I am often faced with families' powerful feelings and traumas, but the closer their experiences match my own experiences as a parent, the harder I find it to regulate my own instinctive emotional response.

And that is what happened as I listened to my wife. I was immediately and painfully transported to the edge of the shock, horror and grief that a group of Irish parents are experiencing in the aftermath of the terrible accident.

My own children are well enough into their teenage years that I can anticipate them heading off on J1 visas to explore and experience the US for themselves. I can also remember my own student journeys in the US; growing up and making mistakes in equal measure.

So, the deaths of these six young people and the injuries to seven more, feels all too close and all too frightening.

I can only imagine the actual experience for their parents and families.

Read more: Gutter journalism an insult to victims of Berkeley tragedy

Hearing the news and realising that it was their son or daughter killed or injured must have induced a shock and a disbelief that this could actually be true.

As more information came through, the terrible reality could not have been ignored. An urgency to go, to be at the scene of the accident, to be close to their son or daughter, probably became paramount.

There is no right way, or wrong way, to react when we get faced with such tragedy.

Some will suppress the immediate emotional responses, unconsciously, to allow themselves to process the facts, to make sense of the details of what has happened and then to act accordingly.

Others will be so overwhelmed by potent, primal feelings of loss and grief that rational thought and action will be unreachable in the short term.

Others may oscillate between the two, appearing somewhat detached and overwhelmed at different times.

Read more: Deenihan travels to Berkeley to show solidarity

Slowly, though, the truth of the situation must creep in. The reality of their loss, or of the physical pain and potential future suffering of their offspring, will be unavoidable.

But, in these early days and weeks, few, if any, of the parents will be able to accept what has happened.

Grieving is a process that can take months and years to move through. Shock, denial, anger, confusion, loss, hurt, despair, hopelessness may ebb and flow as time passes. Some will want quick answers, "what happened?", "how could this have happened?", "how could this have been prevented?"

But the answers are unlikely to bring peace, or closure. Only the suffering of grief, and the time to heal, may give this particular group of parents some respite in the years to come.

Read more: Friends who bonded in school, on the sports field and in college lecture halls

The awfulness of the tragedy speaks to my own stage in my family life and so the families of the dead and injured students have been especially in my thoughts in recent days.

I hope they can draw on the love and support of their extended families and friends to get through these dreadful days.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist

Irish Independent

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