Journey of loss is a very hard road to travel
Paul Gilligan explains how the process of grieving can unfold when people are impacted by immense personal tragedy
It is difficult for us to fully comprehend the depths of sadness, despair and loss the families and friends of the students who died in Berkeley must be feeling. Still reeling from the shock of what has happened, some will understandably not be able to fully grasp the emotional impact as yet. There are few of us who do not share this sense of loss. How can we possibly make sense of such a merciless, random event? Trying to find meaning in what has happened seems impossible.
Yet, for the victims and for their families and friends, finding meaning will be essential. The first inclination is usuallt to try and find meaning through attributing blame.
Sometimes finding a cause and a focus of blame helps those left behind, but it rarely fully resolves their loss. Over the coming months, many directly impacted will become angry, depressed or plagued by guilt; why did I let my child go to America, why was it him/her and not me? These reactions are normal and understandable. Moving beyond blame, feelings of hopelessness, despair and deep sadness will emerge. The finality of loss can envelop even the most resilient.
Underpinning all of this is a longing and need to make sense of why our son, daughter, brother, sister, friend so full of life and potential could be taken from us, so prematurely and so unfairly.
Resolving this will require great strength, immense resilience and substantial support. Supporting each other and being given the space to resolve the anger and despair without public scrutiny will be essential. Transparent and timely information on the details of the accident, why it happened and how future reoccurrences can be avoided, will help.
Accurate and compassionate public commentary and as much community support that we can muster will also be of immense benefit.
Essential to the journey of recovery will be the need for each of those who have survived to reach into their hearts to try to find answers to the truly meaningful, often heartbreaking, answers about life itself, its purpose and frailty.
It is only the closest family and friends who can really help.The young adult survivors will have particular challenges. Coming to terms with the death of friends will take immense resilience.
For me, like most parents of young adults, this week has shocked me into considering these questions and has enhanced my empathy for the surviving families. I, like many others, feel a genuine emotional bond with the parents affected. Parents are confronted every day with giving our young adults the freedom and opportunity to get the most out of life, while all the time worrying and hoping that they will be safe.
Nothing I or others can say will be able to resolve the loss the parents of these young people are feeling. This will be a very personal, painful and difficult journey. I hope that along the way, they will take some comfort from knowing that their children died while living their lives fully, enjoying the world as young adults, unburdened by the restraints of adulthood. Perhaps, in time, this thought which is best encapsulated in the words of playwright Tom Stoppard, from The Coast of Utopia, will help to resolve the loss.
"Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? ... The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question, the only question."
Paul Gilligan is CEO St Patrick's Mental Health Services, a clinical psychologist, and the author of 'Raising Emotionally Healthy Children'