Traumatic Loss

Although a sudden death affects people differently, there are some common reactions that you may experience.  Some people may experience little reaction to the event while others may experience strong reactions.  These signs could begin right away, or you may feel fine for a couple of days or weeks, then later be hit with a reaction.  The important thing to remember is that these reactions are quite normal.  Although you may feel some distress, you're probably experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Counseling services and same-day crisis intervention are available through the Counseling Center located in the Professional Services building at 247 West Lorain Street, Suite D (440-775-8470) to help students manage personal distress and provide them with the skills to function and meet the demands of a campus environment.

Some common responses to a traumatic loss are:

Physical Reactions: Emotional Reactions: Effect on Productivity:
  • Insomnia/nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Hyperactivity or "nervous energy"
  • Change in appetite
  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations or pains in the chest
  • Dizzy spells
  • Flashbacks or "reliving" the event
  • Excessive jumpiness or tendency to be startled
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Feelings of anxiety or helplessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Increased incident of errors
  • Lapses of memory
  • Increase in absenteeism

Ways to cope with traumatic stress:

  • Be tolerant of your reactions--they are normal and will subside with time for most people.  Acknowledge that it may be awhile before you are entirely back to "normal".
  • Give yourself time.  You may feel better for awhile, and then have a "relapse".  This is normal.  Allow plenty of time to adjust to the new realities.
  • Spend time with others, even though it may be difficult at first.  It is easy to withdraw when you're hurt, but now you need the company of others.
  • Talk about the experience with your friends.  For most people, talking helps relieve some of the intense emotions we feel under stress.
  • Try to keep your normal routine.  Staying active will keep your mind on events other than the trauma, will give you a sense of comfort with familiar tasks, and will help put some psychological "distance" between you and the event.
  • Structure your time even more carefully than usual.  It's normal to forget things when you're under stress.  Keep lists and double-check any important work.
  • Maintain control where you can.  Make small decisions, even if you feel that it's unimportant or you don't care.  It's important to maintain control in some areas of your life.
  • Let the event activate you to do something about the causes of the trauma or allow you to feel more control, e.g. join groups that address issues related to the event, look for ways to help others.
  • Ask for help if you are particularly bothered by your reactions to the event, or notice that they interfere substanially with your social life or work.  Call the Counseling Center and set up an appointment.

Dealing with the Aftermath of Tragedy

Oberlin College is committed to caring for our students’ intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. When a national or world tragedy occurs, faculty members often express their wish to help their students effectively deal with the aftermath. There is no single correct time for these discussions. It is probably best to consider a discussion within a week of the occurrence of the tragedy.

If you prefer not to provide discussion time during class, even if you do not wish to lead an in-classroom discussion, it is probably best to acknowledge the event. A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty concentrating. Failure to mention the event can result in students becoming angry at what they label as a “professor’s insensitivity to what happened.” If you choose not to devote discussion time to the event, you might mention to students that tragedies stir up many emotions and that you want to remind the students that there are resources on campus where they might consider seeking support. On our campus, those resources include the Counseling Center, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Residential Education, and Class Deans.

If you wish to provide an opportunity for discussion, how do we discuss something so distressing? Here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Discussion can be brief
    Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak.
  2. Acknowledge the event
    Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.
  3. Allow brief discussion of the “facts,” and then shift to emotions
    Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and “debating” some details. People are more comfortable discussing “facts,” than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.
  4. Invite students to share emotional, personal responses
    You might lead off by saying something like,“Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”
  5. If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way, and there is no “right way” to react.
  6. Be prepared for blaming
    When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it is might be useful to say, “We have been focusing on our senses of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”
  7. It is normal for people to seek an “explanation” of why the tragedy occurred. By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings:

     We always seek to understand

     It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events

     By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain

     Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable

     The faculty member is better off resisting the temptation to make meaning of the event. That is not one of your responsibilities and would not be helpful.

  8. Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus
    In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, you encourage them to make use of campus resources. These include the the Counseling Center, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and Class Deans.
  9. Some useful links:
    For University students, a good resource, provided by the American Psychological Association specifically for the Virginia Tech disaster is: Tips for College and University Students: Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Shootings.

* This information was written and used with permission of Joan Whitney, Ph.D., Executive Director, University Counseling Cener, Villanova University.