Coping in the wake of tragedy

Thursday, September 13, 2001

While officials in New York and Washington, D.C., continued rescue and recovery efforts Wednesday, many people in Southeast Missouri were struggling to deal with the range of emotions brought on by terrorist attacks early Tuesday.

Adults and children alike struggle with issues of extreme anger, hostility, fear, anxiety and grief that arose after a coordinated assault on American government and finance, which grounded the nation's commercial aircraft and led President Bush to place the military on its highest state of alert.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center were hit by two hijacked airplanes and collapsed. Another jet struck the Pentagon while a fourth jet crashed outside Pittsburgh, Pa. Thousands are feared dead; many are still missing. Rescue officials say it could take weeks to know the full extent of the tragedy.

People walked around in shock and denial Tuesday when the first reports were heard, said the Rev. Bill Matzat, director of pastoral care at Southeast Missouri Hospital. A 10 a.m. chapel service at the hospital was full, he said.

Counselors at the Community Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau anticipated an abundance of calls to the center's crisis hotline Tuesday and Wednesday but didn't have that response. Sometimes it takes people time to comprehend what happened before they begin to seek help, said Claire Watson, director of education.

'Delayed reaction'

"There's a delayed reaction," she said, adding that people with chronic anxiety or depression could have worsened conditions. "We don't know yet what to expect. With a traumatic event it might be six months from now" before people feel the full psychological effects.

The reaction is almost one of collective grief, he said. "There might not be anybody directly involved, but it's like a calamity beyond their control."

And the phases of grief are different because of it, Matzat said. Recovering from it could take time. "The adjustment comes after a while. You don't like that it happened but you go on with life."

Returning to normalcy could be one of the best ways to cope with the tragic events, said Watson.

"It's OK to turn off the television and not saturate yourself with the constant barrage of information," she said.

Although sporting events and entertainment shows were canceled, families with children could benefit from limited exposure to the news. "You can do something completely different," Watson said, offering suggestions like playing board games.

Many people are struggling with understanding the events and comprehending its evil intent. "The challenge is understanding it so that you can explain it and know what to say," Watson said. But it's OK to tell children that you don't understand.

"You don't have to have the answer but can spend time talking about issues and feelings and sharing."

As people began to understand the tragedy, it is helpful to spend time together. "It's the emotional work of mourning," Matzat said. To overcome the grief, it is helpful for people to identify their fears and anger and sense of helplessness.

If the issue isn't discussed initially, it can manifest itself later in another area and be more severe, he said. "You have to come to grips with the fear and anxieties that you have" in order to cope.

"You want to escape it, and because of the nature of the events, people know it could have been someplace else or it may not be over or closer to home," Watson said. "There is the insecurity that we're still not safe. In a sense we are all affected."

The Associated Press contributed information to this report.

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