After Christchurch, one week on: Why rituals are important, children acting out, and our trauma reactions

Today marks one week since the tragic events of 15 March 2019. As we remember those who were killed and injured, those whose lives were changed forever on that day, I thought I would post a few responses to things that people have been asking me about, either on email, in person or through media requests.  


What happens if you’ve been affected by the earthquakes and now this?

For many people, who have been affected by the earthquakes, and have now been involved in this event in some shape or form, they may experience some feelings and thoughts that might be troubling for them. In the outer layer of people affected, let's say of people who struggled through but survived the impacts of the earthquakes and who now find themselves living in a city full of sirens, emergency activity, and to a large extent sadness and worries about what happens next, then this can act as a reminder of those previous times and make us feel as though we have been catapulted backwards to a more difficult time for ourselves. This is totally understandable and uncomfortable and unpleasant for those going through it. It will most likely pass if people do the things they have done in the past that have worked for them, or if they reach out to their usual support for help. Social support and social connection really does seem to be the most important thing that gets us through times like this. But don’t be afraid to reach out for help if these feelings persist.

As well as us thinking deeply about what this event means about us as a nation to ourselves, I hear people expressing concerns about how we might be perceived now by others overseas. There is a complex set of thoughts and feelings swirling around here, including shame, guilt and anger. This is certainly a wound that will require time and active engagement to heal, and although there may be overlaps with the earthquake experience and recovery, the wound is different and is likely to require a different set of actions and a different form of healing.

Children hiding emotions

After an event like this, children may hide their emotions because they are ashamed of their reactions or because they want to protect their parents who are also visibly upset.  They may try to take care of their parents, not because they are coping well themselves, but rather because they worry that their parents are having trouble adjusting. If you feel like you’re struggling with your thoughts and feelings as a parent, or you’re having trouble finding a solution with helping your child, make sure you seek help yourself or assistance with your child.

Children acting out

Children may act out what they have seen online or what they may have heard happened. This is expected - it happen - but we need to be careful about how we respond to this. Of course, if this happens somewhere like school, then it's understandable that teachers will step in because they want to protect others from seeing this, or being co-opted into it unwillingly, or victimised in this re-enactment: there needs to be a clear signal that its not acceptable in this space. But it does show some kind of processing needs to take place, and for many children - and adults - it's not necessarily a verbal format that’s going to do it for them. So, they will need to find other ways of processing what’s going on for them, and talking about it might not work for them. There are approaches that seem to be helpful, such as careful use of theatre as therapy.


Why ritual is important and why we seek solace in each other’s company

Rituals are important in many different ways, but let me talk about at least three of them here.

  1. Rituals symbolise cultural identity and values we share with our families and wider circles. But it is also an important opportunity to learn from each other. We know that one of the best ways to address prejudice and increase understanding is to actually spend more time in company with people who are different to us. So, witnessing and participating in each others rituals are an important opportunity to do that. Doing this doesn’t mean you become consumed or are totally accepted by each others cultures, but perhaps it is on the pathway to increased understanding and tolerance.

  2. Rituals ensure people take time for emotional connection. Often we are busy and fly past each other. But doing something together with a shared meaning actually has the effect of slowing you down and creating the opportunity for us to connect with one another. Community meals are an example of doing this.

  3. Rituals can help us to process our feelings as we move through life’s transitions, and to stay connected despite our conflicts. Often when we disagree or there is conflict, or where there is a threat that has the potential to tear communities apart from each other, we can walk away from each other and take refuge and stew in ourselves or people who reinforce our polar position. So its even more important to remember to turn towards each other. Rituals that bring us together begin a repair process. And having lasting rituals and repeated opportunities to come together mean that we can maintain these connections, have opportunities to iron our differences and disagreements and maintain closeness, rather than diverging apart into our echo chambers that only reflects our own points of view.


What if we feel helpless like we can’t do anything to help

It's sad when we watch others grieve, when we share that time together, but we feel powerless to do anything to help. One of the things that potentially traumatic events like this can do is remove our agency from us. That is, the sense that we can stand in our power and exert our influence in the world. For those people who have lost family members, this is very real and terribly present in their lives right now. For those members in our wider community, in our nation,  who perhaps feel like this as well, that’s understandable too. What it may require as a response is for us to look for new places and avenues where we can exit our influence. From a systems point of view, it might mean that we start to address some of the root causes that created the conditions that made something like this more likely to take place, or things that potentially increased the risk of harm once it had taken place. So, addressing issues such as proliferation and spreading of material likely to cause harm online, or lobbying institutions to address that through tighter regulation, or voluntary boycotts - those sorts of things are ways that we can exert influence and increase our sense of agency where we can feel like we are contributing to an effort to make sure that this is far less likely to happen again.

At a ground level, we can help in many different ways, but one of the most important is to increase our understanding of what it is to be a New Zealander, in walks of life that are not our own. Only by seeing the world through their eyes can we then understand the avenues for action that might help us to influence and make us feel like we are closer to each other, and that we can use our agency to do things to increase our collective sense of recovery and wellbeing after this terrible event.

Go well today and into the future together.