Berkeley: Let students express their loss and grief their way

Rita de Brún suggests the words of GP Dr Harry Barry for anyone — young people in particular and their parents — struggling to cope with the Berkeley tragedy  

Berkeley: Let students express their loss and grief their way

THE tragic loss of six young students, in Berkeley, California, five of whom were from Dublin, has devastated the lives of all close to them and instilled shock and sadness in the wider community.

Five of the victims, all of whom were in their early 20s, had travelled from Ireland to the United States on J1 visas. The tragedy occurred when they were celebrating the 21st birthday of a friend, and the balcony on which they were standing collapsed.

As families, friends and classmates of those who have been killed, injured, or otherwise impacted struggle to cope with their loss and shock, Dr Harry Barry, a general practitioner with a special interest in mental health, has wise words: “ The students must be able to express their emotions in whatever form they want. The young men in particular may not want to discuss their feelings in words at home, but they should be allowed to express them in their own way. Parents should validate that expression, no matter what they might think of it.

READ MORE: New York Times apologises for Berkeley article .

“Given that young people handle loss in a different way to older people, they are generally more comfortable gathering with peers and dealing with their feelings by celebrating the life of the person or people they have lost. A class get-together dedicated to doing just that can be a welcome way for them to remember the person they have lost, as for many, being in a group of young people who are all experiencing the same loss can be an effective way of getting the emotion out.”

For many of the young people suffering this loss, it is the first time they have faced the harshness of sudden tragedy and the associated trauma. To them, Dr Barry says we need to say there is no easy way to deal with this unimaginable pain, it can’t be dodged or avoided, but it can be expressed and for many young people that will take place in the company of groups of friends.

For parents who are at a loss as to how to broach the hurt their youngsters are feeling, Dr Barry says that it can help to talk with them adult to adult about the traumas and losses they have experienced in their lives, about how that felt and about how they dealt with it.

“By sharing their experiences, they may help the young people to feel better able to freely express some of what they are feeling. They should remember that this is a time of learning for the young people whose friends have been killed or injured, one in which they may be learning for the first time that life can be difficult, unfair, and extremely painful; that it is not something that we can expect to glide through at all times.”

The fact that many young people have lost not just one, but a group of friends in Berkeley can make coming to terms with the loss all the more difficult to endure.

“This can be both catastrophic and destructive, but we can help young people through it by encouraging them to freely express their feelings, by shouting, screaming or otherwise expressing their feelings. It is vital that they get to express their feelings, that they don’t bottle them up.”

While they will find strength in groups, young people will still have to deal with what has happened individually. Parents can play a role in this.

“They can help by remembering that the old idea of grief being something that occurs in predictable stages, such as shock, anger, denial, grief, and acceptance, is now gone,” says Dr Barry.

“All they need to know and impart to those who are grieving, is that the pain of losing those we love never goes away. It is something we carry with us always. But it is also something that as time goes by, we learn to handle it better.”

Acknowledging that for some this catastrophe may result in post-traumatic stress disorder further down the line, Dr Barry says this usually manifests between six and 12 months after the event. As for how we can recognise it, he says it can take the form of the person affected becoming anxious, nervous, worried and hyper vigilant about the safety of those close to them.

“It can sneak up on people,” says Dr Barry “and it can lead to flashbacks, nightmares, incredible anxiety and sometimes depression.”

Pat McCarthy, co-ordinator of the Cois Céim Counselling Programme in Ballincollig, Cork, says we must remember that news of this tragedy can trigger memories of loss in individuals who do not know any of those lost or hurt in Berkeley.

“They may wonder why they are feeling so upset, especially when they don’t know any of the students or their families. What may be happening is that they are feeling their own hurt from past losses and it is important that they deal with that as best they can, and get counselling for it if it would help to speak with a professional.”

University College Dublin has opened a book of condolence on its website and is offering counselling and support services to students both in the US and in Dublin.

READ MORE: New York Times apologises for Berkeley article .

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