A Parisian Nightmare


Terrorism is about instilling fear. An attack on a football match, restaurant and a concert venue.  In general, the way we look at the world is ‘benevolent’ – that it’s a good place and that good things happen.  Boom, bang, shots fired and a world view is shattered.  The ordinary life of Parisians is now clouded by fear.  The worldview is now looked at more malevolent – unsafe, broken and fearful.


With 89 killed attending a concert in the Bataclan concert venue and scores injured their world and a little bit of our’s is shattered.  While our lives may be diverse from other groups in society we are all tied by the common bond of humanity and loss. I am aware that these tragedy’s will amplify feels for families who already have lost others via firearms and those families whose members are members of the security forces, Gardai and Army.  Such events will amplify their feelings of fear.


In my therapy room I have seen this fear. Years ago, I worked in the Traumatic Stress Service in London’s Maudsley Hospital / Institute of Psychiatry where victims of terrorism e.g. Tube Bombings, torture victims and those involved in mass rail or motor collisions. Trauma does not need to be ‘Big Bang Events’, they happen in every corner of Ireland, farm and industrial accidents, violent assaults, road traffic collisions, etc


Traumatic loss is characterised initially by shock, disbelief and numbness.  Soon anger becomes the dominate emotion. For many this is all pervasive and may never leave for others this many ease. Often missed is that grief is not only a deeply emotional experience. I was struck by one eye witness who talked about clamouring over bodies to break for freedom and I could see and hear emergent guilt and shame.  The thing is that raw grief is brutal and ruthless. The individual goes through so many feelings – shock, sadness, questioning, pain, loss, hurt, confused, anger, guilt, shame, unreal and so much more. It impacts on how we think, to the point that we cannot think anymore. Often not talked about but pervasive is physical pain that leaches into ever part of the body as a deep ache and unresolving pain.


Traumatic events is like throwing a stone into water where the ripples go out like a tsunami wave and can overwhelm families, friends and relatives, cities and countries.  Powerlessness and helplessness are the order of the day. We all want to do something. Yet we are unsure.   Really It’s about being not doing. Being present and not ignoring the pain. Allowing people to express their grief. Often with a huge traumatic event such as this older trauma wounds can be opened up.  Please remember that grief is best supported in a family and community context in the first place.


Through, the amazing resilience of people in time individuals may find within themselves the capacity to cope with such events, that doesn’t mean they forget it. It just means they can continue on, just about. Within most people there is a connectedness, a strength, an inherent capacity to stick together and adapt despite the trauma.


In addition our thoughts go to those who survived and witnessed the terrible incident in Paris. Many kind words are spoken regarding first responders, and they are deserved.  In addition to kind words psychological support for these groups needs to be available, ongoing and have expertise. The psychological footprint of such events lasts years compared to the medical or emergency first response.  The psychological impact for them will be different than those directly bereaved. When it comes to trauma the medical needs take priority in the initial phases. In the medium to long term the psychological needs of survivors are central. There is the potentiality for the phenomena of survival guilt. Now survivor guilt is not experienced by everyone, and may vary a great deal in intensity, it appears to be a common experience. What is survivor guilt?  Anyone who survives a traumatic experience can experience these feelings. Survivor guilt explores the other side of the coin of why me? Namely, why not me? Why did I survive when others did not?  Those who struggle with it may express the feeling of being an fraud: somehow the “wrong” person survived; it “just doesn’t seem right.” Survivor guilt may help survivors cope with the helplessness and powerlessness of being in a life-threatening situation without the ability to protect or save others. It can also be one way to express a connection to those who have died, a way, for a time, of keeping them alive.


In addressing complex grief resulting from traumatic loss the challenge is to acknowledge and accept that guilt exists. Feelings of guilt are quite common and represent part of the healing process for persons coping with loss. When people feel guilty, they tend to isolate themselves.  The challenge is to try to discuss the experience with persons who will not express judgment. Counselling can be very important to support individuals to move from this negative emotions.


The goal is that grief does not get stuck into that area of complicated grief which is an intense and long-lasting form of grief that takes over a person’s life. For many Irish people they don’t have to go to Paris to experience traumatic grief. Parents of those who children have died by suicide, Road Traffic collisions, Sudden Adult Death are in similar circumstances. Traumatic or complicated grief is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s life and won’t let go. People with complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.”  Over time, healing diminishes the pain of a loss. Tragically, individuals with complicated grief know their loved one is gone, but they still can’t believe it. They say that time is moving on but they are not. They often have strong feelings of yearning or longing for the person who died that don’t seem to lessen as time goes on. Thoughts, memories, or images of the deceased person frequently fill their mind, capturing their attention. They might have strong feelings of bitterness or anger related to the death. They find it hard to imagine that life without the deceased person has purpose or meaning. It can seem like joy and satisfaction are gone forever. Again it’s important if you are feeling his way bereavement counselling can help. Check out www.bereaved.ie an excellent resource provided by the Irish Hospice Foundation.