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  • 11 March 2022
  • 2 years

You’re Safer, They’re Not: Coping with Separation and Guilt in a Crisis

Sharma, M., Baptista de Oliveira, A., & Morgan, H.

In a crisis such as an armed conflict or a natural disaster, families can be separated when some members move to safety while others remain behind. That separation alone can be traumatic, and it is often combined with other traumas – exposure to violence and risk before and during relocation, loss of property and the unknowns of a chaotic situation.

If you’re the one who has moved toward safety, you might feel some relief. You might also feel lonely, scared, confused, exhausted, sad, angry, guilty and a powerful mix of other emotions.

The Body’s Reaction to Traumatic Stress

Some of what you may be feeling is your body’s natural reaction to trauma. If you have been in danger or worried about loved ones who were, and may still be, in danger, you may be feeling the effects of traumatic stress. These mental and physical reactions can include

  • Irritability and anger
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feelings of helplessness and disconnection
  • Fear and confusion
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Obsessive thoughts about your experiences

These reactions can be disturbing. If you are responsible for children or other family members, you’d prefer to be calm and patient. If you’ve relocated, you’d prefer to be clear-headed as you navigate your new environment. Recognising these signs as indications of trauma can help you be kind to yourself as you recover from your experiences; pace yourself when your energy is limited.

Feelings of Guilt When Loved Ones Remain in Danger

Another emotion natural to separation in times of danger is guilt. If you have moved to a place of relative safety and your partner or other loved ones have remained behind, it’s common to feel guilt for your good fortune as you fear for their safety. It’s important, though, not to let feelings of guilt hold you back from taking the steps you need to take for yourself and your family.

Questions about why bad things have happened and whether you made the right decisions or did the right thing are natural, but these thoughts can hold you back: They increase your emotional pain at a time when you need to keep yourself functioning and focus on the tasks of putting the pieces of your life together again for the benefit of you and your family.

Ways to Cope with Trauma, Separation and Guilt

  • Recognise and accept your feelings. Understand that the emotional and physical reactions to trauma are natural and common. Accept that you may have intense and conflicting emotions. Allow yourself to feel painful emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety and grief. Feeling guilty does not mean that you’ve done anything to cause others to judge you as guilty. It’s OK to feel relief at being in a place of relative safety even as you mourn losses and feel genuine concern for people who are still in danger.
  • Give yourself permission and time to grieve. Trust that you have the strength to feel the sadness of your losses. Let yourself experience your grief. Recognise, too, that the passage through grief takes time and the intensity of your grief can rise and fall in waves.
  • Give yourself permission to be happy, too. If you feel guilty that people you love remain in danger, don’t let that stop you from feeling joy when you can. That might be in happy moments with a child or a friend, the pleasure of a good meal or a walk outside in nice weather. Your loved ones will want you to be happy when you can be, and it won’t help them if you suffer on their behalf.
  • Connect with others. Sharing your experiences and feelings with family, friends and the new people around you can help you process your emotions and recover from trauma. Connecting by phone or online with the people you’ve left behind can help you feel whole again. Human connections like these are also a way to share practical information about your new environment. Consider joining a support group or talking with a counsellor – whatever feels comfortable for you and is helpful.
  • Challenge unrealistic and unhelpful thinking. It can be tempting to blame yourself when bad things happen, but it’s rarely helpful. Remind yourself of the forces beyond your control that caused the situation, and let go of any feelings of responsibility for those larger events. Friends and family can help you notice unhelpful and unrealistic thinking.
  • Use mindfulness and other grounding exercises. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, setting aside distractions and thoughts of the past or future. By focusing on your breathing, an object or a present feeling, you can let go of worries and accept your current reality.
  • Do what you can to make the situation better. Feelings of helplessness can be overcome by taking even small actions. Help someone who is in need. Be kind to the people around you. Cook a meal for someone. Make a donation. Educate others on the situation in your country or community. Offer your services as an aide, a translator or using another skill.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t put yourself at the end of the line for care and attention. Eat regular meals with a mix of nutritious foods. Get outside for walks or physical activity. Get the sleep you need. Make time for activities you enjoy. The more you focus on the things that bring you joy, the more you can train your brain to feel more optimistic and resilient in the face of adversity.
  • Seek help. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek professional help when you are in emotional pain or facing extraordinary challenges. It’s a sign of strength and a gift to the people who care about and depend on you. Professional counselling can provide a safe space to share your feelings, talk about your experiences and learn new ways to cope.

Healing from the trauma of your experience may take some time and can be a journey of its own, but for now, focus on finding your resilience and taking care of yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask to be able to take care of the others who are safe with you.

Sharma, M., Baptista de Oliveira, A., & Morgan, H. (2022, 8 March). You’re safer, they’re not: Coping with separation and guilt in a crisis (Z. Meeker & B. Schuette, Eds.). London: Workplace Options.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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