Friday, November 12, 2010

Things They Don't Write How-To Books For

I hope none of you are ever caught smack in the middle of a horrific tragedy that makes newspaper headlines. And if you are, then chances are it will only happen once.

I've had two happen in my life - roughly only a year apart (the second of the two was over a year ago now). I feel a bit like I have the lay of the land. I could write a book, but that's so time consuming. Instead I'm going to chronicle some of my thoughts here. You know, where it's messy and unorganized and will never get snag me an advance from a publisher. How's that for brains?

Actually, that's the first thing I learned:

1) Don't expect your brain to be fully present. Be prepared when it goes on hiatus for a bit. Don't feel dumb when you can't form complex sentences, but also - don't operate heavy machinery. Or try to balance your checkbook alone...

In fact, when you have survived a horrific tragedy, and everyone asks how they can help, here is the best advice I have for you: hand your checkbook or your debit card to your nearest, dearest and most trustworthy friend or relative. Give them your bills. Tell them to pay what is necessary and give you the remaining cash in increments. I'm not even kidding. You should not be trusted with money or expected to do math after a tragedy and NO ONE thinks about that. I still have no idea what I did with my May 2009 paycheck. I think I bought some food. And maybe clothing to wear to memorials. And... um... yeah. I got nothing. I have NO IDEA what I spent money on. I just didn't care. At all. I'm still trying to catch up on debts that were ignored and went unpaid during the first several months.

2) Buy a mild sedative (unless you are suffering from dangerous levels of depression). Take it at 9pm every night. I don't care how busy you are. You need rest and if you don't do this you are going to end up like me - awake at 1am on a weeknight making lists because you have forgotten how to sleep. It ain't pretty. I mean it. It's going to take years for the bags under my eyes to go away. Small birds could nest in the hollows beneath my eyes. The sleep deprivation does NOT help you regain brainpower. Take a pill. Get some sleep. Later, when you are ready to heal, you will stop taking them and start dreaming again and blah blah blah healing blah.

3) Even the nicest reporter is not your friend. Everything is on the record. I'm going to write a lengthy post about this at some point, but just remember - even a genuinely well-intentioned reporter (and they DO exist) may misquote you. If you speak to the media, do the following (even though you will sound like an idiot in person when you do this):

Think very carefully about exactly what you want to say.

Say very little.

Pause as long as you need to to come up with the shortest and least complex sentence possible.

Speak at a reasonably slow pace and speak clearly - they cannot quote what they cannot understand or, in some cases, write down (but they can more easily misquote it).

End the conversation as soon as you have said what it is most important to say, no matter what. Even if it means being rude and saying, "Thank you for continuing to respect our privacy" and then just walking off.

You can stop ANY time you feel like it.

An interview isn't a conversation. It feels like it, but do NOT forget that you aren't just talking to someone - you're giving them material. And MOST important - Accept that they WILL get some of it wrong anyway. Even if they mean well. Even if they WRITE it accurately, their editor may cut out half a paragraph that changes EVERYTHING. Be prepared for that.

4) If you choose NOT to talk to the media, you are choosing not to have your voice heard. That's okay. They're going to get it wrong to some degree no matter what. But you need to accept that if you choose not to speak to the press, then you are choosing to keep your point of view to yourself. So, when your perspective and feelings are not represented (or accurately represented) in the media coverage, you need to be ready for that and know that you made that choice. Sometimes NOT talking to the media is as bad as talking to them. You aren't betraying a dead friend if you speak to a reporter. If you knew them better than anyone else, you're probably the person who wants to talk to the press the LEAST. You may, however, also be the best person to describe what your lost loved one was actually like. You may sit at home pissed off while people who did NOT know your friend that well are talking to the press. Neither choice is right. Neither choice is going to make things okay. Even the best news story is not very comforting. But recognize that whether or not you speak to the media - you are making a choice and you need to be ready for what that choice means.

5) There is no wrong reaction. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to figure what you need. What you actually want. If someone you love has died in the tragedy in question, then nothing is going to make that feel better. Except maybe time. Everyone has unique needs and one of the hardest things is seeing what you have to or need to do and accepting that. Conversely, if a lot of other people in your life who are effected by the tragedy - realize that they may have needs and reactions that you do not understand. Their reactions are valid, too. Even if they're weird or irritating. If they bother you, put some distance there, but don't punish other people who are also suffering for their reactions. Vent to a third party but it is important to get through difficult times without increasing someone else's suffering. This is the case with ALL tragedy, but it is magnified when there is media scrutiny. You start to feel like your emotions are supposed to fit some set course - because it's so public and others are SO aware of what is going on. It increases the pressure to "act normal" in a situation where there IS NO NORMAL. So just know that that is okay. You don't have to experience or cope with this in any particular way. Do what you need to do.

Honestly, if a large group of people are experiencing the same loss - the part about trying not to increase other people's suffering at all is dang near impossible. But try. When people are reacting to trauma they all have different needs. Be there for the people you love, but also locate some friends or family who are NOT sharing your loss. I don't care if you have to call someone you haven't talked to in ten years. I guess that would be #6...

6) Have at LEAST one person (preferably more) in your life who has not experienced the same trauma. Sounds easy, right? Well - depends on the scope of the trauma. But seriously - FIND someone. Like actually designate them. Let them KNOW. You are going to need to have someone around or someone you can call who has not ALSO just experienced this devastating loss. It took me forever to figure that out. You can't just lean on people who are also in the middle of healing and you need people you can trust - because acquaintances are not the best people to depend on when someone you love is in the news.

People can be surprisingly odd and unintentionally callous when, instead of just dealing with, "Oh your friend died, that's terrible." they are dealing with, "Your friend died and it's on the national news and the camera crews were right down the street from where I work and..." Yeah. Choose carefully, but find a non-trauma buddy. Someone who isn't excited about the fact that the newspaper reporter wants to interview you. If you stick with fellow survivors, then not everyone's needs will get met and some damage can be done. When massive, bizarre, life altering tragedy strikes - try to find at least one person to stand by you who isn't a fellow "victim." Even if that person is your awesome new therapist (**I HIGHLY recommend finding a good therapist!).

7) When you can, define your situation for the people outside your trauma. Basically, provide "Clif notes" to them. This is actually a good rule when dealing with a lot of types of tragedy - not just news-story horrific level stuff. But... remember that not everyone who matters to you is going to "get" it. And their ability to understand the level of impact the trauma has had on you does NOT mean they are a bad person or that they do not love you. Maybe they aren't imaginative. Maybe they've never experienced any sort of trauma. Maybe they are just human and have bad crap happening to them, too - smaller stuff than in your world, maybe - but still damn big in their world.

I learned to tell people in my life things along the lines of, "I am not okay. I may look okay and act okay sometimes, but I'm not really okay yet. I may not be okay for a long time. This _________ is what happened to me - in practical terms, that is what I experienced. That's a lot to process. I need you to try to remember that I'm always thinking about that, too. Don't give me a free pass to be a jerk or anything. But just be aware that that is part of what is happening inside me. All the time. So if I forget things or I don't reach out a lot - It's not that I don't care. It's that I'm still healing and I have a lot to work through."

It kind of feels like having to explain to the people you love that you were fully functional, but now part of your brain is gone. And you're sorry. And you don't actually know if it's going to come back.

But the things is, they DON'T KNOW unless you tell them. You may be really lucky and be surrounded by people who are incredibly empathetic and just pick up what's going on with you easy as can be. But this is the real world, so I'm thinking that's unlikely. If you talk to the people you love, even in the most rudimentary way, about where you are at and what you are still working through - that gives them some perspective and reminds them that you DO still love and need them. You just don't have complete access to your brain right now.

8. If you can, find ways to laugh. At least try. Again, good advice in all traumatic situations, but more so if it's something SO outside of normal experience (violent act, natural disaster, freak accident) that you have to process both the loss AND a horrific foreign experience. If someone has died, find someone else who knew them who will talk with you about the funny, stupid or weird things about your lost loved one - not just the simple, nice stuff. ESCAPE by watching a funny movie. DO something completely silly. One night shortly after the shooting, a bunch of my friends came over to my house and one of the guys - a big, butch guy's guy in the group - shows up with a hair highlighting kit. He let us highlight his hair. He was walking around with this silly cap on and strands of hair sticking out everywhere and, while my heart was so heavy, it made me see that there would be good again and there would be laughter again. It reminded me that the friend I had lost would want me to be able to smile - and would be laughing himself if he saw this big tough guy with a women's hair processing kit being used on his head (this man is one of my personal heroes).

Finding ANY joy and ANY normalcy kept me from losing my mind. When the world feels like it makes NO sense, the best thing you can do for yourself is find anything at all to laugh about. Or help someone else heal by giving them something to laugh about.


These are the basics as I see them right now. I'm sure I will think of other things. Hindsight is 20/20. I think it was oddly helpful to me and the friends I went through the second tragedy with that I had had some previous experience with trauma in a public arena. I was better prepared for the media. I was more acclimated to the whole idea that terrible things actually happen to real people. On the whole, the big trick is to allow yourself to slow down. Take things one at a time. Don't rush any decisions that you don't have to. I know you don't have much choice about funeral arrangements. When you are involved in the memorial, those things have to be done. So you do them. But everything else can wait. And that's okay.

And last but not least - I hope no one I know ever needs any of this advice. If nothing else, though - rules 3 and 4 are really good to keep in mind during all media interaction.

Just in case, btw - to reiterate - I realize many of you put two and two together and will know which tragedies I am speaking of - which is fine. I just don't want this post or my blog linked to or mentioned in conjunction with anything that identifies my friends or the incidents in question. I hope my own awful experiences can be helpful to others, so I certainly want the advice or ideas passed on, but I don't want media-circus-gawker traffic. I appreciate your consideration.


  1. Marisa -- This is so brave and VITAL. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Well now that I've read this post about 4 times, I guess I should chime in, just so you know that someone "gets" it. #1. Amen. I lost all sense of how to live life. Had to move, had to quit my job..........parents helped me through this part. #2. Amen. I DID NOT do this. Have suffered with sleep problems ever since, I let the pattern go on too long. #3+4. I never did talk to the media. Except for one sentence after the verdict. What I learned about media......Newspapers are all about the reporter. Two papers covered the case, one reporter always got it right, the other always got SOMETHING wrong. Don't believe what you read. To this day, I will only watch local news on one station. They were the station that acted with class, and asked before they stuck a camera in your face. The other 2 local stations were vultures. Even the good newspaper reporter helped protect me from them. Years later a book was written.......I spent many hours talking to the author. He got it 90% right. The story finally got told the way it should have. #5. Everyone thought I reacted wrong. Nobody got it except my friend that survived. It wasn't until I was around other crime victims that I found some real empathy. #6. I agree with you. Never found that someone, really. So I try to be that person for other people. #7. Most people around me hated talking about it, hearing about it, dealing with it. So I shut up. I actually got a tape recorder and spent a few hours telling the story to "it", that helped. Just found that tape a few weeks ago........NO, can't listen to it yet. I got used to the idea that THANK GOD, most people have no idea what it's like. #8. My healing happened as a day care teacher. Laughing at little ones, and feeling the unconditional love they gave me. Even if I cried just a little sometimes, the kids were comforting.

    My Husband (who I met years after the murders) is a NOVA instructor who recently completed his training. This has helped me talk to him for the first time really. Seems like NOVA has some good resources.

    Thanks for sharing all this..........

    Thanks for letting me share.

  3. Chick Voice - just... Thank you. I tried responding to this months ago and found it so hard to know what to say... So, really just Thank you. For making it through. For having the grace to want to use your experience to look out for others. And for sharing with me.