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article imageOp-Ed: 'Just Get Over It' Wrong Message for Katrina Disaster Victims (Part 4)

By Carol Forsloff     Mar 24, 2009 in Health
“Get over it.” “Quit whining.” “You'll be okay in a few days."” “Haven't you talked about that enough?” These aren't good messages for people who have suffered trauma
Telling people to just get over it comes from messages we all hear. They are emails in our baskets, but they're junk. We say "get over it" to each other after someone has a divorce, an operation, or a loss of any kind. It makes us feel better, puffs us up, makes us seem significant. We often follow the message with one about ourselves, how we lost something or someone, but we just picked right up and got on with it. We imply those who don't are weak. But sending these messages isn't therapeutic for victims who need to discharge pain. For if they don't, the impact on emotional, physical and mental health can be significant.
We not only say “get over it” to help ourselves feel significant; we do it to disguise our own pain and grief. We were told with our own tragedies and losses to get over it, and many of us did. We swallowed whatever tragedy we experienced and kept right on going. Then one day, unexpectedly, we got angry over a trivial event, but somehow related to that thing in the past that went wrong. We act irrationally over that event, then wonder why we did. It's because, specialists tell us, when we don't properly experience our grief, and find listeners who are compassionate, the problems can resurface and cause us pain again.
Disaster victims are particularly vulnerable to those messages, “just get over it.” War victims sometimes get a little time, not much though, especially if they have been in the military; and everyone knows it. Still even they don't get the time to mourn they need. Consider the men who were in the Vietnam War. In fact psychiatric experts maintain that at least 10% of Vietnam veterans have continued to experience stress reactions 30 years later. They didn't arrive home in glory with medals, but they did return with wounds. Many of them just went on with it. After all, they were mostly men in the Vietnam war, and strong men don't cry; they get over it. Or so folks thought at the time. But then some of these men experienced nightmares, sweating, visions that interrupted attention during the daytime and even episodes of violence towards themselves or others. Some landed on the streets, unsupported, unemployed, unhealthy and miserable. Families who said “get on with it” said final goodbyes because when those men got on with it, they weren't really prepared.
Houston Reliant Dome filled with Katrina refugees
Houston Reliant Dome filled with Katrina refugees
Photo by tiger_in_houston
Those impacted by great disasters, like the bombing of the World Trade Towers in 2001 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have a uniquely different experience that can be long-lasting. For some the problems can be lifelong. The most vulnerable are those who have experienced early trauma, scientists say. Individuals who have been abused in childhood, struggled with terrible poverty and want or experienced a devastating loss, like the loss of a spouse, parent or child, are especially vulnerable during and after disasters. Yet they are told to “get over it.” This is while those approximations for men in Vietnam might be reasonable to use for serious disasters. Many people are told fairly soon to get over or get on with it by families, friends and even each other. The cyclical message we are all exposed to comes up in ways we think will soften our own pain so we can get on with our lives without acknowledging those things that hurt us too.
After Hurricane Katrina the Red Cross moved into many areas and served the victims in shelters with band-aid counseling of the moment. Many shelters had few if any licensed counselors. I know that because I served as the only one at the shelter in Natchitoches, Louisiana. As I sat and counseled victims, heard their stories, saw their tears, I heard well-meaning, untrained volunteers tell these people, “you'll get over it. You can stop crying because you need to get over it.” Well meaning, but wrong. Getting over it doesn't happen during the event or even those hours and days following. It is a process of discharging grief that must come as it should. The process is different for each person, and for some may take years.
Search and rescue mission in New Orleans
After Katrina, search and rescue missions looked for survivors
Phot by Ammar Abd Rabbo
Many folks find easy answers to complex mental health problems. Even those with great, big hearts don't mean ill when they talk about their experiences and abilities to get on with it. Some indeed took the time themselves, but have long forgotten that. Sandy Rosenthal and other members of and survivors of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers at channel their grief into serving each other and advocacy as well as interface with government to ensure better response to disasters. Even so many of these people continue to have deep feelings of grief and loss in quiet moments alone or with others. Again, it is a process that for each person is individual in nature. Recent research shows it is especially difficult for children.
Do people need to get on with it? They need to live, take care of themselves, find a direction, return to work and all those things, of course. Still the messages from friends, loved ones and well-meaning folk should be “you'll improve.” “You must hurt a great deal. How can I help you?” "You'll grow past this, but it might take time. I'm here if you need me “"Each day might bring new chances and ways to grow; look for them in everything you find." "People like me understand” "You probably have a lot to handle, but you'll make progress in time with your own resources and people who care. I'm here" Give positive, supportive, encouraging, thoughtful, compassionate messages that reveal understanding and love.
But don't just tell people to get on with it when they may not be able to without help.
The author served at the Red Cross in Natchitoches, Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina as evacuees streamed into the small town in the north central part of the state. She was a licensed mental health-rehabilitation counselor, a profession from which she retired in 2005 to devote herself to journalism for which she received early college training, did part time, and continuously has loved. Many of her articles rely on her counseling background. She has worked with hundreds of disaster survivors and victims of war in Louisiana and Hawaii over many years.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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