The recent murders of innocent children and adults in Oslo, Norway, are a national tragedy. Like September 11th, this tragedy causes anticipatory grief. Usually we associate anticipatory grief with the failing health of a family member, friend, or pet. But anticipatory grief can affect an entire population.
Anticipatory grief is a feeling of loss before a death or dreaded event occurs. With mass murder and terrorism, the survivors worry about both – more attacks and more deaths. Some survivors may think their anxiety stems from excessive news coverage when they are actually experiencing the symptoms of anticipatory grief.
Some grief experts think this grief is as powerful as post-death grief. Lois Krahn, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, and I devote an entire chapter to the anticipatory grief of terrorism in our book, Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief. September 11th devastated Americans for many reasons:
- The element of surprise
- Our altered concept of reality
- Sheer brutality of the attacks
- Mass casualties
- Successful and failed rescue attempts
- Increased fear of terrorism and mass murder
- Fear for children’s safety
- Questions about national security
- Impact on national economy
- Impact on local economy
- Anxiety and need to stay close to home
- Safety worries
- Loss of freedoms previously taken for granted
Today, many Norwegians are grappling with the same concerns. This peaceful country, a country that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed unprepared for such an attack. It took 90 minutes for a police boat to reach the island where the children were camping. According to reports, the camp had no security at all. Unprotected government buildings in the heart of Oslo suffered so much structural damage they will probably have to be rebuilt.
Anticipatory grief is a burden for a nation and for individuals. How can we cope with this burden?
First, we can model calm behavior for children. This isn’t easy, but it is possible, and helps us at the same time. Second, we can focus on the present, go about our lives, and enjoy each moment. Third, we can learn more about the reasons behind mass murder and terrorism. Fourth, we can become familiar with community resources. If there aren’t enough resources, we can request them and help create them. Fifth, we can limit television viewing, especially late newscasts.
Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, Director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Minnesota, is an expert on bioterrorism. He thinks we need to stay in contact with family members and make a disaster plan. This plan should include a central meeting place and back-up systems. Every family member should have a copy of the plan.
The American Red Cross has also developed a program to help young people deal with tragic events and terrorism. It’s called “Facing the Fear.” Contact your local Red Cross chapter for more information.
Finally, writing about your feelings can help immensely. Identifying our fears helps us to process them. You may write in a grief diary, journal, or separate journal. If you write on the computer, be sure to date your entries and print them out for safekeeping. Tragic as the murders in Norway are, we need to remember there are many kind and caring people in the world and count ourselves among them.
Harriet Hodgson 2011