On Friday, after the news from Sandy Hook Elementary had taken hold of our collective consciousness, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

In the wake of this horrific day, please be mindful of how you fill your mind and spirit. Just because we have a 24 hour news cycle doesn’t mean you have to watch it all the time. You can honor the precious lives lost even without knowing every detail. Your emotional wellness matters and can be impacted by the images and thoughts the news is churning out.

The “Virginia Tech Massacre,” the deadliest mass shooting in US history, took place on April 16, 2007.  I had an eleven-day-old baby.  He was a voracious nurser, and I spent hour after hour in my yellow chair, nursing my baby and watching the coverage.

There was not a victim I didn’t know.  There were no details I missed.  I watched everything.

I was a new parent and had just discovered the white-hot, ferocity of maternal love.  I had known on an intellectual level that that kind of love existed, but until I felt it for myself, I had no clue of its power.

All of those children.  All of those parents.  All of those mothers.

How could a mother go on living after losing her child?

Fueled by postpartum hormonal wackiness and an utter lack of sleep, I sat and watched the coverage and sobbed my ever-loving eyes out.  I cried and I cried and I cried.

Now, I am, by nature, a highly empathetic person.  I can’t see other people grieve without feeling their grief very profoundly.  Blessedly, I married a man who, although he feels things very deeply, can process and move on better than I.  The news from Virginia Tech weighed me down.  It drove me into deep despair.  And my emotional, physical and spiritual health suffered as a result.

In the intervening five plus years, I have come to realize a few things.

First of all, as I said above, just because we have a twenty-four hour news cycle, we should not be compelled to participate in it twenty-four hours a day.  In fact, I believe that the constant barrage of information – especially tragic information – is unhealthy.

Second, knowing every detail about tragic events in no way honors those whose lives were lost.  I cannot “share in the pain” of their families.  I can feel my own pain, and I do.  But watching images of children in horror, seeing pictures of mothers on the worst day of their lives … this does not build me up.  It does not make me a better human.  It does not inform me or otherwise empower me to take action or make a change.  It only drags me deeper into the depths of sadness.  My sadness will not take away the pain the victims feel.

Five years ago, I had only one small infant in my care.  Today, I am the emotional, managerial, logistical, etc. caregiver for three children, ages 5, 4 and 6  months.  I do not have the luxury of crying my eyes out all day.  I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to take on the pain of the grieving parents.

Nor should I.  It won’t do them a lick of good.

Reading the work of Dr. Judith Orloff has helped me a great deal on many levels.  In a piece called “Keeping Ourselves Centered and Protected,” she says,

We’re trained that as big-hearted people it’s laudable to try to relieve the pain of others. A homeless person holding a cardboard sign, “I’m hungry. Will work for food” at a busy intersection; a hurt child; a distraught friend. It’s natural to want to reach out to them, ease their angst. But many of us don’t stop there. Inadvertently, we take it on. Suddenly we’re the one feeling desolate, off kilter, bereft, when we felt fine before. This loss of center is what I want to address. It does not serve us. I am adamant: the most compassionate, effective route to healing people is to be a supportive presence, not attempt to live their pain for them. Moreover, sometimes suffering has its own cycle that has to be respected, hard as that may be to witness.

You may be more like my husband – able to watch the news and process it without being drawn into the immense pain.  Or, you may be thinking something along the lines of, “If we don’t pay attention to what happened there, then weren’t all those lives given in vain?  Doesn’t our attention make it matter?”

I’m not telling you how to respond to this tragedy.  It’s something we each have to do for ourselves.  What I am saying is that when we are caring for others, it’s easy to put self-care on the back burner.  We don’t tend to our own gardens because we are so busy plowing their fields.  Protecting our emotional selves and nurturing our spirits involves more than meditating, praying or doing yoga a few times a week.  It involves making critical choices about what we are going to allow ourselves to experience.  Ruminating about a tragedy will not bring back a single one of those precious children, and spiraling into a media-fueled depression serves no one well.

I can promise you this – you can always, always find ugliness, sadness and horror in the world.  It’s there with the stroke of a key or flip of the remote.  Make a conscious, positive, self-aware and self-loving choice about what you will do with that reality.

What’s your strategy for emotional wellness in the wake of tragedy?

11 Responses to “The Caregiver Series : Caring for Our Emotional Selves”

  1. on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:36 amKathryn

    Leaning on God. Trusting Him.

  2. on 17 Dec 2012 at 10:48 amJulie Hildebrand

    Another great post. I kept up with the headlines, but have not watched constant coverage by any stretch.

    And as you said, we can find ugliness, sadness and horror everywhere. I firmly believe that there is evil in this world and we should not be surprised when it unleashes itself, for it does EVERY day and EVERY minute. This is not heaven.


  3. on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:07 amNancy

    Beautifully written; wise words.

  4. on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:14 amMonica

    Avoiding coverage as much as possible. I just can’t. I honor them every time I see, hug, argue, love my own healthy, vibrant, obstinate six year old. Luckily, I have a husband who is more capable of logical processing as well and he tells me only what he thinks I can handle and may need to know to understand the larger context of the story.

  5. on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:40 amKristine Rudolph

    Monica, my husband does much the same for me. I get the CNN Breaking News Alerts which I scan, and then he fills me in on details. Last night, though, we had a few “I can’t go there” moments. I also have to be careful about my Twitter and FB feeds because a lot of the most difficult information comes through those portals.

  6. on 17 Dec 2012 at 1:59 pmJenny Williams

    Beautifully written and a very good post. I think it is worth remembering often how everyone grieves and deals with pain differently and it doesn’t make one way better than others.

  7. on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:19 pmKristine Rudolph

    That’s one reason I love the Orloff quote – it helps me critically think through what actually is my pain/grief when my natural reaction is to take on the grief of others.

  8. on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:32 pmKristine Rudolph

    To be clear, I know that for some people, knowing what is going on is the best way to process their feelings. I just hope that people will take care of themselves and monitor when they start to feel, as Orloff says, “desolate, off kilter, bereft.”

  9. on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:50 pmCarl Peterson

    Grieving instead of news, is the way I try to look at this story and the ones that we are constantly bombarded with. I have gone back to getting most of my news from the printed (as in newspapers you can hold and touch) media and that has helped me. Having been involved with hospice as a board member and as a client as I grieved for my mother, that helps me to take care of myself and shows me the importance of all of those around me. As in any grief process you never know when something is going to stride a chord, and I definitely cannot control it. For me, the reading of the names of all the victims by our preacher at church Sunday was probably one of the most poignant moments so far, what a way to connect. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Krsitine and keep smiling, as that is another way to show people you care.

  10. on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:58 pmKristine Rudolph

    We’re big newspaper people here, too. I have come to value the ability to read without hyperlinks because you can’t just go deeper and deeper into what you are reading, which can be horrible for a ruminator like me.

    I haven’t been able to read the stories in the paper this time either, actually. It’s just too much. And, my reading time tends to be when kids are around and I find I have trouble centering and focusing on them when I get into the stories. I’ve put the paper down three times now. Which, I think, tells me a great deal about my lacking emotional bandwidth.

    Thanks for reading, Carl.

  11. on 19 Apr 2013 at 7:15 pmhot Nai Nai

    It is interesting how when I was growing up all our news came after the fact. That made it easier. Most of the time things were already resolved by the time it hit the 6 oclock news. Also before movies they always showed news reels. We did not deal with this — follow as it is happening. Now it is just like reality tv and you are living thru it as it happens. I think this is much more damaging to those that get emotionally involved.

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