FEATURE — Tragic headlines like “Baby Left in Hot Car Dies” or “Toddler Drowns in River” or “Child in Driveway Run Over by Parents” often evoke strong emotion and opinion. Online comments about such instances are frequently filled with outrage toward the seemingly careless parents. Because these accounts hit close to home it can often be difficult to maintain a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint.
Before adding another voice to charged commentary, consider several points that will enhance kindness and understanding.
The stages of grief for bystanders
For a family that has experienced an unexpected death, it is helpful to process the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A bystander of tragedy does not experience the full brunt of each stage but can often undergo a mini process of grief in a matter of minutes.
For example, after reading the headline “Baby Left in Hot Car Dies” one might think: “No way!” a feeling of denial. “They must be horrible parents,” a feeling of anger. “How could that mom not remember that her baby was out there?” a feeling of bargaining. “That poor baby. If it really was an accident those parents must be so sad,” a feeling of depression. “I hope they get through this. This makes me want to be more careful with my baby,” a feeling of acceptance.
It is normal to have initial feelings of denial, anger, and bargaining as a bystander of someone else’s tragedy, but to dwell solely on those stages is evidence of an individual who is still working through grief and who has not yet gained a healthy dosage of acceptance.
Anger is a secondary emotion
For people who gravitate toward responding in anger it is helpful to understand that anger is a secondary emotion; in other words, anger stems from more basic emotions.
Primary emotions, from which anger often stems, include emotions like sadness, hurt, or scared. It is often the case that when individuals respond in anger they are really feeling sad, hurt, or scared.
Expressions of anger carry a certain “wow factor” that quickly leave an impression, but they are an easier and cheaper way of conveying what one is really feeling. It is easy to lash out in anger, but harder to trace back the origin of anger and have heartfelt commentary where words like sadness, hurt, and scared are used. Conversations that include these primary emotions will build understanding and empathy.
The information will never be complete
In the therapy world it is typically best to avoid using superlative type words like “never” or “always” or “impossible,” but it is impossible for one news article to encapsulate every neutral and raw detail of a story that would provide the reader with all the information they need to develop a completely informed opinion.
There is potential for much hurt when assumptions are made and blanks filled in. Before making rushed commentary it is best to analyze a story from as many angles as possible.
Before finding fault, look inward
The last key to constructing a nonjudgmental stance is to look inward before finding fault with others. How many parents have quickly turned their back while their child was sitting on the counter? Have run to answer the phone while a child was bathing? Have let a child have a short ride unbuckled? Were not watching while a child was putting a choking hazard in their mouth?
For the majority of parents, many accidents are avoided not because parents are constantly helicoptering over their children, but because of chance and good fortune. Before pointing the finger of scorn it might be worth pausing to consider blessings and areas of personal improvement. The sad experiences of others can be a strong reminder of our good fortune.
The tragedies of others often bring a flurry of emotion and opinion. In order to develop a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint it is important to understand the five stages of grief for a bystander and that anger is a secondary emotion. Additionally, it will also help to understand that news pieces have limited information and that the tragedies of others can be key moments to look inward and find good fortune.
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Written by Brent Black for St. George Health & Wellness Magazine and St. George News. Brent Black is a marriage and family therapist. Black can be contacted by going to the St. George Center for Couples and Families website.
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