I’m not a big doughnut fan, but I confess to being preternaturally drawn this week to news that Tim Hortons, a popular coffee and doughnut chain in Canada, is opening Minnesota franchises.
I found myself riveted by advice on the correct sunscreen to buy, too.
I know I’m not alone in my hunger to find distractions — protection, really — from the senseless tragedies piling up, culminating in the unfathomable violence in Orlando.
The murders of 49 bright young people presented me with a queasy feeling of emotional paralysis, the sense that I will topple if one more horrible thing happens.
I was relieved to hear there’s a name for what I, for what many of us, are experiencing: “grief overload.”
In a world before 24-hour news cycles, grief overload and its relatives, cumulative grief and bereavement overload, referred mainly to personal heartache. We might know someone, for example, who lost one parent, then another, in quick succession, barely coming up for air before being yanked down again into the anguish undertow.
Now, no thanks to graphic iPhone videos and voracious news feeds, the term’s scope has broadened.
We all feel dragged down. Everything feels personal.
“There’s not as much out there about the collective, cumulative grief that comes in the wake of national tragedies,” said Litsa Williams, co-founder of the Baltimore-based website whatsyourgrief.com.
“But it is a very similar process,” said Williams, who holds master’s degrees in philosophy and social work. “We’re just trying to make sense of one tragedy, and then suddenly we’re thrust into trying to make sense of another. With the way media access is now, we’re starting to see this in a way that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”
Oftentimes, a national tragedy reopens a personal wound, added Molly Ruggles, a licensed psychologist and program coordinator for the Center for Grief, Loss & Transition in St. Paul.
“Most people have experienced some kind of loss or difficult experience in their lives,” she said. “Media events amplify those personal losses, especially something like the Orlando shootings, where there is such a traumatic component.”
But even those lucky enough to have escaped personal tragedy cannot help but be affected by the barrage.
“There is a perception that the world is not a safe place,” Ruggles said. “This absolutely has an impact on how we function and relate to other people.”
So how do we consume the news without being consumed by it? Equally important, how do we consume the news without becoming numb to it?
Williams and Ruggles offer many good ideas:
Limit media exposure. Obvious, yes, but how many of us do it? “One of the biggest challenges is the pervasiveness of the exposure,” Williams said. “It’s not just about going to the 6 p.m. news. It’s Facebook, Twitter, any social media platform. You have to work very hard to stay away, so make a plan. ‘I am going to limit myself. I’m going to take a break.’ And be aware of it for our kids, too, who are on social media all day long. They are seeing lots and lots of images.”
Take a personal inventory. After these tragic events, Williams and Ruggles encourage us to think about what is right in our lives and more deeply appreciate those things. Our kids. Our dog. Our health.
Find ways to make meaning. “You might not be able to stop the next tragic event,” Williams said, “but where do we have control? Where can we take action?” That might mean attending a vigil, making a donation, getting politically active, donating blood.
Take care of yourself. This is important so that we don’t shut down emotionally, which makes us unable to take care of others. “Get enough sleep,” Ruggles said. “Take a walk. Spend time with animals. They’re so healing and so in the moment. The same with little kids. They can help us stay connected.”
Cut yourself a break. No one should have to deal with this level of exposure all the time. “As a professional, friend, spouse, parent, if I am emotionally wiped out, I am not going to be equipped to support anyone else in my life,” Williams said. “Empathy is a really positive thing, but there are also dangers. When we truly are people who try to identify with people all the time, and are constantly being exposed to traumatic experiences, that can become emotionally exhausting.”
Guard against detachment. It’s normal to be tempted to adopt the protective strategy of shutting it all out. But when taken to an extreme, that detachment can lead to dangerous disconnection from people who need us. And we need them, too.
Compartmentalize. It’s all right to divide our lives between the energy we devote to grieving these horrible events, and the time we move away, Williams said. “It’s OK to say, ‘This was truly a tragedy, but I cannot let it consume me in a way that won’t allow me to be the person who can put good things into the world.’ ”