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When Tragedy Strikes, Come Together

Author: David Bornstein

Last week, as I was preparing a different column, I learned through e-mails about a tragedy very close to home — two children were murdered by their caretaker in the Manhattan neighborhood where I live with my wife and son. Lucia Krim, one of the children who was killed, was a first grader at P.S. 87, where my son is in the fourth grade. I found myself unable to return to the piece I had been writing. My mind, and heart, kept being pulled to the questions: How can parents possibly endure something like this? Is there anything a community can do to help? In the days that followed, I was impressed by the way the school’s principal and parent leaders communicated with parents and took initiative to organize meetings and workshops. As I spoke to others, it became clear that many felt a deep need to help. But what is there to do?

If we were living in another country — like India — scores of extended family, friends and neighbors would gather around the bereaved and stay with them day and night for weeks or months. Gathering around the bereaved is an ancient global pattern that spans cultures, notes George A. Bonanno, author of “The Other Side of Sadness” (a book that was a great help to me after my mother died last year). It’s an ancient global pattern probably because it works. “This act has two immediate benefits,” said Bonanno. “It tells the bereaved that they are not alone in their pain and that they have a place — indeed it reaffirms that place — in the broader community.” In much of the United States, he noted, we tend to handle our grief on a smaller scale, and in a more personalized way.

So I thought it might be useful to look at another Westernized country where people have often had to deal with the violent deaths of children: Israel. I reached out to Esther Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma. Cohen has observed that, over the past decades, a community-based tradition has evolved in Israel, particularly for handling family tragedies involving the deaths of children. There are no protocols, she said, but there are some accepted guiding principles and practices that are grounded in experience and, increasingly, supported by research.

One of the most common is to communicate to the bereaving family in a concrete and public way that their loss is shared by others and that it will not be forgotten as time moves on. In Israel, schools often do this by constructing permanent memorials to students who have died, and then instituting traditions for preserving their memories. “My in-laws lost a son in the army some 30 years ago,” explained Cohen. “And every year they go back to his high school and have a memorial there with the new kids in the school. And the school has a room where any student who has died or has been killed is memorialized. So there is a place in the community outside the family where the memory of dear ones is kept alive from year to year.” Such places are at times a synagogue, a community center or a youth movement center.

This has the benefit of giving others, especially other children or youths, an opportunity to take constructive action for the family. “The principle of being active is very important,” added Cohen. “The feeling that you cannot help in such situations is terrible.”

It is common for schools or community groups to organize ceremonies or vigils to mark a death. However, if it is a one-time thing, or if participants sit and attend passively, the meaning for the grieving families or those in attendance may not be as strong. Some activities that Cohen mentioned were planting trees in memory of a child, constructing art structures to serve as memorials, building playground equipment, and creating photograph books that have permanent, clearly identified, places in the school library.

The act of helping others may seem merely compassionate and decent — but research indicates that it also produces important physical and mental health benefits for caregivers. “It can’t just be helping for the sake of doing something. The need must be authentic and the action something meaningful,” explains Stephanie L. Brown, an associate professor of preventive medicine at SUNY Stony Brook who is also affiliated with the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Brown has conducted extensive research on caregiving behavior, and found that it reduces chronic stress and depression and is particularly helpful for people experiencing high levels of grief, such as those who have recently lost a spouse. In recent years, scientists have deepened their understanding into the neural mechanisms behind this phenomenon.

In short, finding ways to help the traumatized family may be the best way to help everyone. But it’s not something that can, or should, be done immediately – and it must be done with the family’s consent. “A family first has to come to terms with what has happened and that can take time,” notes Bonanno. “It’s such a nightmare and it’s so hard to believe that it happened. But after some time, it will be important for them to know that they’re not going to be walking into the cold hard city and that the community wants to reach out to them. The question is when.”

In the meantime, communities can address other dimensions of the tragedy, including the fears they produce in children and the anxieties they stir up in adults. The Krim tragedy is so damaging because one of its potential messages is that you can’t trust anyone, not even your nanny. “From my experience parents want to forget as quickly as possible and they want to believe that young kids forget, too,” says Esther Cohen. “But kids do not forget. It is important to be open to hints that questions are lingering about this — especially this very complex issue of what it is to be psychotic — and how a person who looks normal can suddenly become dangerous.”

In the aftermath of an event that shakes up our confidence in the order of things — such as an inexplicable killing, or, more broadly, a mass-event like 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy — it’s vital for communities to come together to reestablish a sense of trust and collective efficacy.

One key insight noted by Cohen and a trauma expert based in New York City, Jack Saul, is to focus on parents, rather than therapists, as the front lines of defense. “We have an orientation in our society that it’s counselors or therapists who are most important in helping kids,” says Saul, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who set up a “community resilience” initiative that brought together school, family and community members in lower Manhattan after 9/11. “We don’t pay enough attention to parents as the main resource. It’s the parents who are going to be responding to things as they come up spontaneously. We need to think about how we can strengthen the natural support systems.” According to Cohen, research indicates that “the impact of parental reactions” may be a better predictor of how a child adapts to a traumatic event than the event itself.

Saul suggests that communities create spaces where parents are invited to come together with one another, as well as teachers and school staff, to discuss their experiences, and receive assistance as needed. This week, P.S. 87 has done just that, organizing support sessions for parents and nannies.

Now, in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, thousands of communities will be grappling for ways to respond effectively to a wide variety of needs, including mental health needs. Here are a few suggestions for school-based interventions suggested by Esther Cohen:

  • Set up a school crisis-intervention team, allocating roles, training team members and establishing procedures for action, and setting up liaisons with other community organizations.
  • Provide support to children and families from people they know and trust — like teachers or the principal — rather than from outsiders, such as crisis-intervention teams. These are better used to support the school staff.
  • School staff should assemble before the start of the day for a meeting with the crisis team, then again at lunch to gather information about the students’ reactions, updates, and to discuss experiences. They should meet for a third time at the end of the day to review and plan for the next days.
  • One important activity is to map “circles of vulnerability” and update them. The most vulnerable students and families are identified by proximity (social, geographical or emotional) to the victims, and by other characteristics relevant to general level of vulnerability, like other recent stresses. This should be the basis for support and follow-up plans for vulnerable individuals and groups at school and in the community.

When tragedies or disasters strike close to home, we look for ways to avoid the anxiety they produce — sometimes by withdrawing or tuning out, and sometimes by turning our attention to lurid or unimportant details. But that sort of avoidance doesn’t help the victims of a tragedy, or the community, heal. Being present to confront the difficult reality of loss, undertaking the necessary task of “gathering round,” and offering of ourselves, is what matters. It’s part of the reason we live in communities.

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is the founder of, a media site that reports on social innovation.

DMU Timestamp: February 08, 2018 18:47

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