masthead alt text
Home / 2013 Fall / Features / Healing as a Community
Orientation photoPhoto: Marc Piscotty

Healing as a Community

By Lisa Birman

Following the devastating floods this fall, the Naropa community gathered for a Flood Response Community Meeting on September 18. Facilitated by Academic Affairs and the Graduate School of Psychology, the community was invited to reconnect and learn about normal responses to trauma and disaster. Expecting a small group, Academic Affairs and PAC staff quickly adapted to the approximately 150 staff, faculty, and students who showed up to share their experiences (not to mention the delicious spread of comfort food arranged by AA staff).

President Chuck Lief opened the community meeting, offering information about the Naropa Flood Relief Fund and other ways of giving directly to the community. Human Resources staff also offered some practical information about registering with FEMA, and health and safety issues for community members directly impacted by flooding.

Professor MacAndrew Jack explains, "Part of what happens in trauma is that there's a wrenching or ripping of your connection with each other, with the natural environment. You feel disconnected and that's painful. If we understand our compassionate nature, our interconnected nature, then what do we do with trauma? We reconnect as a community, we find ways to be useful and we find ways to be compassionate with ourselves."

MacAndrew and Visiting Instructor Michael Lythgoe agreed that they wanted to steer away from people retelling stories of trauma. Instead, they listed some of the typical responses and experiences of those who have been through trauma and asked people to self-select and raise their hands as they identified their symptoms. They also looked at the notions of primary, secondary, and tertiary trauma. Six or seven people identified themselves as being displaced or having lost their homes, though many more community members experiencing primary trauma were still off-campus dealing with their immediate situations. Secondary trauma was defined as having someone close to you affected by the floods, and tertiary relates to being part of a community going through a traumatic event. By definition, everyone in the room had experienced tertiary trauma. However, when MacAndrew asked how many people had a close friend who was displaced or lost their home, every person in the room raised their hand, every person was also experiencing secondary trauma. "That was probably one of the more impactful two minutes," he recalls. "Getting to that point where this entire group now acknowledges they're all affected because they care about somebody who's affected."

Michael, a specialist in dealing with trauma and crisis, especially in school settings, also spoke about the ways in which trauma can build on previous experience. "Prior memories, experiences, feelings, smells all can trigger implicit memory, meaning the more unconscious memory or subtle aspects of memory, and the explicit memory, the verbal, visual memories we have of prior experiences," he explains. Though it may not seem immediately apparent that there are connections to be made between the loss of a family member and floods, they are both traumatic experiences and so our memories create those connections. The important thing to remember is that it's normal for those past experiences to impact the present.

Another common symptom in trauma is dissociating, not just from our community, but also from our own bodies. Dean Christine Caldwell spoke to the group about resiliency and self-care, leading them through a body scan and slow deep grounding breath. Associate Professor Elaine Yuen led the group through a Metta Practice, sending kindness to anyone affected in the larger community. "I often think of it as a compassion practice, or even a wordless prayer of love and compassion, as it asks us to connect with our basic sanity and strength, and also to share that with others. It seemed very appropriate during the flood response meeting," she says.

One of the main aims of the meeting was to help people identify the challenges of feeling disconnected and helpless, and to help them re-empower themselves and reinvest in their communities. "Part of the experience of secondary and even primary trauma, is that you don't know what to do, but you're very motivated to do something," MacAndrew explains. All speakers stressed the importance of self-care, noting that community includes the self. Michael also encouraged people to think beyond the immediate trauma and consider training with the American Red Cross or other agencies, so that they can be better resourced to help out in future crises.

Beyond the people in the room for the meeting, many faculty shared notes prepared by MacAndrew and passed on stories from the gathering. Janine Ibbotson, integral in organizing the event, says that she found the presentation extremely valuable in the emotional aftermath of the flood, often sharing comments and community experiences with others. Associate Professor Sherry Ellms writes, "Those who attended the gathering shared their experience with others who were not there and discovered how helpful it was in normalizing the wide variety of emotions and responses we were all having."

While the focus was on recognizing that many of these shared symptoms are normal in the wake of disaster, it's also important to track whether symptoms abate over time. Increased self-care, including talking to a therapist, family, or other members of your community can continue to be helpful as we move out of the immediate crisis.

For more information about responses to stress, trauma and disaster, as well as information about resourcing and building resilience, see Professor MacAndrew Jack's notes.

Naropa students continuing to experience symptoms of trauma, from this or other events, can seek help at Naropa's On-campus Counseling Center