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Ask Dr. Debra  [click here for archived articles]


Dear Dr. Debra,

Iíve been watching the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding and tornados. Iím horrified by the damage, and I feel so helpless to do anything. Also, Iím feeling guilty because nothing has happened to me. My family and home are safe. Is there something I can do to cope with my reactions? How can I help my children?

A concerned mother

Horror, helplessness, and guilt are a normal response to watching or reading about a disaster. We canít help but be horrified by the images we see on television, knowing how much those unfortunate people are suffering. Itís understandable to have fear fantasies where we put ourselves in the victimsí situations and wonder what we would do if our homes and communities were destroyed.

The guilt you are experiencing is called survivor guilt. Itís a normal reaction to surviving a tragedy, even if the tragedy is far away. When you feel guilty, remind yourself that this is normal, and that you donít need to feel guilty for the blessings you have in your life.

Refrain from long hours of watching the television news. Check in for brief news updates, but donít get caught up in hours of viewing. This can be traumatizing for you. The images can sear into your mind, causing stress reactions such as a lack of concentration, difficulty sleeping, or nightmares.

You can combat the helplessness you feel in three of ways--by examining your own feelings and attitudes, by doing things in for the people around you, and by specifically doing something to help the victims.

Examine your own feelings and attitudes

This is a time to appreciate all you do have. Take a few minutes to focus on feeling appreciative for your family, your home, your job, and everything else good in your life. Last week, you might have been complaining about your family, your home, or your job, but now you can appreciate those blessings, no matter how much they usually stress you. This is the spiritual gift in other peopleís misfortune--that you stop taking the blessings in your own life for granted, put your problems in perspective, and resolve to live your life with a positive purpose. If you are a spiritual person, offer thanks for all the abundance in your life.

Doing Things for the People Around You

This disaster shows us how quickly life can change, and how important it is to make the most of the life you have. Thereís many things you can do to make your own little world a better place. Let your loved ones know how special they are to you. Tell friends, co-workers, and neighbors what you appreciate about them. Find a way to touch the lives of others around you--give extra smiles, hugs, compliments, or acknowledgements. Resolve to be a better person in some way. Be more patience, smile more often, give out hugs, leave notes of appreciation and acknowledgement where your family members or co-workers can find them, stop being so critical or judgmental, or volunteer at a charity.

Doing Something To Aid The Disaster Victims

Donate to the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other disaster relief organizations. If you are financially strapped, you can still find $5 or $10 to donate, even if it means breaking the piggy bank. Many people feel ashamed that they donít have more to offer. However, trust that your gift, combined with many others, will add up. Remember the story in the Bible of the poor widow giving her mite (tiny amount of money) to the temple? Jesus spoke about the widowís gift being blessed because she had given all she had. Spiritually trust that your donation will multiply.

Think about the organizations you belong to. Many organizations have a branch or chapter in the affected areas. These are people you and your organization can personally donate to. For example: I belong to Romance Writers of America (RWA) which has chapters all over the country. A recent email informed me that members of the Louisiana chapter had lost their homes, and a donation was being solicited for them. This was a perfect way for me to send money to people I feel connected with, even if I didnít know them personally.

If you know someone in or near the affected area, you can contact them, asking if theyíd be willing to take a care package to the local shelter and donate the contents. (Or, if you live near the area, you can do this yourself.) Then make a collection of things homeless people in the shelters might need. You might consider sticking to a theme--underwear or personal hygiene supplies or tee-shirts or books and magazines. Tell everyone you know about the collection and ask for money and (new) items. With the money, purchase the items and ship them to your friend for distribution in a shelter.

If you have a skill thatís needed, such as nursing, being a contractor or construction worker, or being rescue worker, consider traveling to the area for a few weeks to donate your time. If you canít afford to leave work for a few weeks, collect donations from your family, job, and community--enough to cover your lost wages, airfare, hotel, and car rental expenses. Many people would eagerly donate a small amount for this purpose. (If you donít receive enough funds to cover the trip, donate the money you do receive to the American Red Cross.) Maybe you could find a corporate sponsor. If you donít have any knowledge or skills for working with a disaster, consider approaching someone who does, and offering to do a sponsorship drive for them so they can volunteer their services.

What You Can Do For Your Children

First of all, keep them away from the television news. Seeing the images of the disaster will only traumatize them. However, donít keep this disaster a secret from them. Sit down and explain in simple terms what has happened. Unless they ask, you donít need to give a lot of details.

If they have already seen the images and are upset, have them draw pictures of what they saw or write down their feelings. This is a good way for them to release the trauma.

If they want to help, suggest they draw or write cards and letters. Help them collect funds to buy some toys to send to the children in the shelters. Let them select the gifts, but stick to books to read (these children have all lost their Harry Potter collections) coloring books and crayons, stuffed animals, puzzles, and board games--things that children in the shelters can quietly play with. Then, as discussed above, send them to a friend who can take them to the shelter or deliver them yourself.

If you want to donate funds for the affected animals, you can contact Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. This organization is working to rescue the trapped animals. 435-644-2001 or www.bestfriends.org.

My heart goes out to all the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Debra

Feel free to write me with your questions

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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