After the Emergency
The days following an emergency are difficult for the family in general and for every individual family member. At such times, members of the household are forced to bear the hardships of the emergency, whether in the form of a prolonged stay in shelters or secure spaces, a disruption of the routine, or a forced stay outside the home.
When the emergency is over, we tend to return to our routines, and we display a strong desire to cross out the past and to look ahead.
Despite this natural tendency, studies about similar situations done both in Israel and throughout the world teach that not dealing with war-time experiences and their effects on emotional and functional aspects of the family members as individuals, and as one family unit, might be detrimental to their ability to return to their normal routines in the short-term and, sometimes, even in the mid- and long-term.
One of the ways of relating to the experiences of the past days, which is at once both simple and highly effective, is by holding a systematic and relaxed family talk.
The talk between the family members has several aims:
Giving the family the chance to explain to itself what happened during the emergency.
Expressing different thoughts, feelings and reactions of family members during the extended emergency.
Normalizing(*) emotional and functional side effects, i.e. recognizing these are normal and common to other people.
Establishing the family as an essential and central support component in the coping process of every family member.
(*) Normalization: This principle, which is important to internalize and impress upon every family member, states that every reaction of feeling, thinking and/or functioning after the individual’s exposure to a state of emergency is a normal reaction to an abnormal reality.
The talk should be led by an adult, e.g., one or both parents, though it is important to invite the children into the conversation. Families that have significant age spreads can split up the talk (a separate talk with each age bracket and a common family talk) in order to allow all family members to express themselves according to their needs and abilities.
So that the talk is effective, it is recommended to prepare it ahead of time:
1) Think about the points you want to discuss and write them down.
2) Set aside an appropriate time for having the talk (think about its length, time it for day/evening, etc.).
3) Choose a comfortable space for holding the talk, i.e. make sure the size of the room is appropriate, that everyone is seated comfortably, that there are snacks/light refreshments, etc.
"So, how do I do it?" First Stage - Introduction
Here, we will discuss the talk itself. The talk should be held in stages; every stage represents important principles designed to ensure the value of the talk. We recommend you conduct the talk by means of leading questions that relate to various aspects of the family experience in the war.
- The Introduction
The purpose of the introduction of the talk is to make sure that everyone shares the same expectations in terms of the goals of the talk, and to define the rules of the talk so that it can proceed in the best manner possible. “This talk is meant to allow us to talk about the extended period of time we have just gone through (in the shelter, the secure space, the distant evacuation site, or other relevant location), so that we can put together a common picture of what happened. It is also meant to allow everyone to express his/her thoughts and feelings. This way, we will get a better sense of what happened to each one of us, and it will help us plan our future steps together.”
After this opening, it is recommended to set down certain rules by which the talk will be held:
1) Every participant has the right to relate to a topic that is raised in the manner that he/she desires.
2) Participants should refrain from making comments or “corrections” or in any way interfere when another family member is talking.
3) After the speaker has finished speaking, it is possible and even desirable to ask clarifying questions (“What did you mean when you said…?” “I didn’t understand the part….”), or to express understanding, empathy, support or appreciation for what s/he said.
4) Throughout the leading questions in the talk, it is recommended that one of the parents relate first to every question in order to serve as a model for the other family members.
5) After all family members have related to each topic, one of the parents will summarize what has been stated by referring to the main points raised.
Second Stage - The Facts
The purpose of this part of the talk is to produce a complete family picture of the details of the event. This picture is very significant, as it is possible that not all family members were together throughout the entire period, and, even if they were, it is possible that each one perceived different events (rockets fallings, an alert, a neighbor being wounded, etc.) in a different way. It is possible that there are information gaps that can and should be bridged. The questions that can steer this stage of the talk are:
- Where were you when it all started (first rocket falling, first alert)?
- What happened during the different stages of the period (evacuation, work, extended stay in the shelter)?
- What were the central events of significance during the period?
It is most important that there be no mutual recriminations or criticism of functioning (someone who found it difficult to function in the shelter because of stress, someone because of whom the family was not evacuated, etc.), but rather a development of an understanding within the family that everyone has the right to talk about the period from his/her personal point of view.
Third Stage - Thoughts and Feelings
The purpose of this stage of the talk is to allow all family members to share with the others their thoughts and feelings during the period and afterwards. This type of revelation may give other family members a way to compare their own experience, and to see their reactions as “normal” – “I am not the only one who thinks, feels and acts this way; the other members of my family do too.”
You can ask in a more specific way –
· what did you think during the period (in the shelter, the evacuation site, etc.)?
· what did you understand during the various stages of the period? what did you not understand?
· what did you feel during the various stages of the period? and what are you feeling now?
During this part of the talk, it is very likely that some participants will describe their thoughts while going into excruciating detail, or will express their various feelings – anger, frustration, blame, guilt, etc. – very forcefully. If this happens, allow these participants to express themselves. Do not cut them off, because it is very important that they express themselves; that, in and of itself, has tremendous value. Therefore, do not allow argumentativeness and recrimination, or criticism and mockery, on the part of the other participants. A feeling of family resilience and strength can be created only if each individual knows that s/he can think and feel as s/he wishes, and that s/he has the opportunity to express it in a family that can cope with it.
If, despite your best efforts, another family member bursts into tears or shows some other emotional outburst, one of the parents or one of the siblings can calm him/her down and express compassion and understanding. These are behaviors that should be encouraged, as they strengthen the family and the natural support that is created through this process.
It is possible that some of the participants will report behavioral or physical phenomena that are uncommon, e.g., insomnia, anxiety, inability to focus, and more. Try to remember and also to mention to the family that these are normal reactions to traumatic events, and that it is safe to assume that they will fade with time.
Fourth Stage - Regrouping: Rallying the Troops
The purpose of this stage of the talk is to assemble all the effective coping strategies for the family. It is important that family members understand that there are ways of coping for each and every one, and that it is possible to draw strength and ideas simply by bringing them out into the open.
Ask your family members:
· What or who helped you in the period we just experienced?
· What or who is helping you now?
· What do you hope will help you down the road?
Finally, it is important that each family member and the family as a whole emerge from the talk with a heightened sense of strength and with a positive outlook. While summarizing one or two points from the talk, turn the participants’ attention to the future!
It is important to make sure that pre-war family functioning is restored afterwards, and that people resume work, school, leisure activities, family activities, etc.
Express your appreciation for everyone’s openness and honesty in the talk, and invite family members to revisit the subject whenever they feel the need. Try to infuse the family with a spirit of hopefulness, without trivializing the pain and the difficulty. A good balance between looking ahead and contemplating the past will create a feeling of resilience and security both in you and your family.