Q: The tsunami in the Indian Ocean has left me very tearful. Why can’t I stop thinking about it and replaying those horrible images in my head? And if I can’t understand how something so horrific could happen, how can I explain it to my children, especially when I am so upset?
A: The world is full of disasters — earthquakes, avalanches, forest fires, train crashes — but the tsunami in Southeast Asia is unparalleled in how much it has touched and disturbed us.
In part this is because a natural disaster somehow seems worse than a man-made one. It is out of our control. And a lack of control is terrifying — especially when it involves life and death.
When a tragedy arises from war or terrorism, there is an entity to blame. Something can be done (at least in theory) to prevent it from happening again.
A random occurrence — an “act of God” — often shakes people’s beliefs. Those who are religious might think: How could God let this happen?
The scale of this tragedy makes things worse. The tsunami affected millions of people across a whole ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people drowned, and many more have been injured and displaced. The repercussions will last for years.
And in this speeded-up electronic age, the modern media brought it to us in stark and gruesome detail.
Significant in determining why this disaster has had such emotional impact across the world, there were endless videos, many showing resort areas. These are visuals most Americans can identify with.
After all, what is more pleasant than taking the kids to the beach? You are supposed to end up with a suntan (perhaps) and sand between your toes — not with unimaginable death and destruction.
All this combines to utterly undermine your sense of fairness and control. You think, It could have been me and my loved ones. Add to that the guilt about the plight and poverty of the majority of victims, and it is no wonder that we have been so affected.
Truth is, it could have been you. Being alive includes risk — sometimes more, sometimes less. That’s how the world is. It’s a fact that can be difficult to accept.
It’s normal to feel sad and nervous after such a tragedy. If, however, you find yourself crying endlessly or unable to function, seek professional help.
Meanwhile, doing something concrete, such as donating money to a relief agency — or, even better, volunteering your time and expertise — really helps. (And, of course, it doesn’t just help you but also the victims of this unimaginable disaster.)
In terms of explaining it to your children, remember that enormous tragedies, terrifying as they are to everyone, are even more terrifying to children. Young children, especially, don’t always understand the news. Each time they watch the same event — a wave rising up, a plane hitting a building — they think it is happening again.
Minimize your children’s media exposure. (It’s a good idea to minimize your own, too.) But you can’t pretend nothing happened, so you should be a source of correct information for your children. Tell them how rare this event is. There’s no need to emphasize the number of deaths.
In addition, try to achieve a balance of concern and calmness when talking to them. You do not want to reinforce their own fears by being too emotional; on the other hand, you don’t want to appear cold and uncaring. If they want to talk about the disaster, listen to them, so they can feel understood.
Meanwhile, if they are drawing pictures or playing games that involve the disaster — building houses of blocks and then destroying them — let them continue. This can be therapeutic for young children.
And let them be involved with your own efforts toward relief. They could, for example, donate their holiday money or work on a school fund-raiser. Just as for you, this gives them the sense of taking control as well as the good feelings that come with doing something positive.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Disasters remind us that life carries risk. But there are ways to help yourself and your children deal with your feelings.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.