Focusing on victims after a terrorist attack

Focusing on victims after a terrorist attack
Nov 27, 2018

The recent inquests for the five victims of the Westminster terror attack in 2017 have reignited discussions on the threat of terrorism, particularly in crowded areas of European capital cities.

As a traumatic stress specialist, I have seen terrorism unleash equal damage to victims’ psychological and physical well-being.

The EU states recognize the need to focus on victims in the aftermath of tragic events as central to any debate on terrorism and its societal impact. Rituals, remembering, acknowledgment, specialist support, and dedicated events can all aid in the recovery from the horror of terrorism.

Sanctioned days of remembrance

Reassuringly, the UK and other member states of the EU have acted (often behind the scenes) to safeguard our communities and combat terrorism. Established after the 2004 Madrid bombings, the European Day of Remembrance of Victims of Terrorism continues to commemorate survivors and victims, their families, and those who intervened to save lives.

It has also allowed nations to unite in respect for victims and to denounce terrorism. In Brussels, the European Commission joined the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), an EU-wide network of practitioners and actors who work to counter violent radicalization. The partnership joins survivors, victim associations, social work counsellors, trauma specialists and psychologists, and EU state representatives to share their stories and experiences.

The power of habit and routine

Humans are creatures of habit. Whether it’s the first cup of tea in the morning or reading the morning paper, familiar activities can help us feel comfortable. Familiar actions can reduce anxiety and help a traumatized person to relax, so getting back to a routine as soon as possible after experiencing an act of terrorism is an important step towards recovery.

When my colleagues and I work with family members of victims and survivors of traumatic events, we use our understanding of human responses to routine, ritual, and memory. Remembrance and honoring the memories of those who died or were injured are important in promoting recovery for both individuals and communities.

Trying to distract from a memory or forget the event does not appear to help in traumatic situations, and our experience has shown that people rarely 'get over' a traumatic event–nor do they even receive a sense of closure. Instead, when a loved one dies, the act of treasuring the memory itself becomes important, even if some of the details are upsetting. Memory is an integral and healthy way to adapt to the loss.

Our understanding informs guidance

Understanding common human responses to traumatic events allows us to create appropriate guidance for family members and survivors. Planning for and suggesting strategies to help individuals and groups are important techniques to help recovery. We recognize that certain dates or life events can trigger a vivid reminder of a traumatic event which can have the same intensity as the event itself. The triggers might involve smells, dates, music, and can occur at any time—even years later.

Where possible, we suggest approaches, plans and preparations to help in these situations:

  • Plan to be with others who understand and can offer acceptance and support on key dates.
  • Participate in or create rituals that become valuable to the individual or community by providing opportunities to remember the event and honor those who died. These could be large community events or small, quiet occasions with family and friends.
  • Rituals might entail laying wreaths, a religious or memorial service, or other activity that resonates with the individuals or groups concerned.
  • Ideally, individuals benefit from being with others rather than isolating themselves and can manage feelings by talking about loved ones and their memories of the event within a small, intimate setting.
  • Prepare individuals and groups to recognize that there will be ups and downs and heightened emotions in the aftermath of the event and these are to be expected.

Being around others becomes paramount

The need to interact with those who have similar experiences of the event, and who can be supportive in their trauma responses and remembering.

This is particularly the case with terrorist acts that are caused deliberately and with the intention of inflicting harm. Peer support groups often form spontaneously and are led by other survivors rather than mental health clinicians or other professionals. There are many examples of this happening, including:

  • A peer support group that formed following the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 that occurred over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The group will commemorate the 30th anniversary on December 21, 2018.
  • Several family support groups that started just after 9/11 in New York, which continue to give emotional support to other victims and are very active in providing input and participating in the annual memorial events.
  • 'Tuesday’s Children', an annual camp for children who have lost a parent in terrorist events, which orchestrates peer support activities to empower and aid these children in their recovery.

Creating opportunities to share their traumatic experiences strengthens the bonds of the community. In 2011, family members and survivors of 9/11 were surveyed and offered funding to organize smaller commemorative events in those neighborhoods that were most highly impacted. Overwhelmingly, the response favored continuing the annual, televised event because these families and survivors did not want the country or the world to forget.

A consistent message following terrorist events is the need to remember the victims and those affected. It serves us well to bring together those directly affected and the whole of the community to acknowledge the event and remember its lessons.

When we remember, we focus on the selfless acts of those caught up in the event and the humanity that unites us, rather than the violence that seeks to divide.

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