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How to cope with emotionally wrenching news like the MH17 disaster...

We recently woke to learn the shocking news that a Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been shot down while flying over Ukraine.

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by Psychologist Angie Wilcocks MFM

We recently woke to learn the shocking news that a Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been shot down while flying over Ukraine.

Since then, the nature of the disaster and the events that have followed have resulted in constant media coverage. A lot of this coverage is graphic and upsetting. Because the crash site has not been secured (as would normally happen) journalists have had access to material they probably shouldn’t have, which they then serve up to us on a daily basis.

Also, the 24-hour news cycle means that the media pushes the bar when it comes to finding a new angle on how to keep telling the same story.

I was shocked to see one television station showing a ‘simulation’ of a missile hitting the plane and the subsequent explosion and crash. Research shows that this sort of graphic coverage adds to the level of distress viewers feel in the wake of such a disaster.

It goes without saying that as Australians, we’re also affected because of the loss of our own people. The senseless loss of normal everyday people going about their normal everyday lives is particularly confronting. We usually protect ourselves from the emotional distress of watching the news by thinking about disasters as happening to other, different looking people, in far away places.

Symptoms of stress and distress are greatly increased when we can personally relate to the victims – when they look like us and do what we do. Disasters like the downing of MH17 are especially distressing and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and anxiety, even for people who don’t know anyone directly affected.

Here are some tips to cope:

  • Limit the amount of news you watch. Even though it’s distressing to watch the news coverage about events like MH17, it’s very normal to be drawn to it with some sort of morbid fascination. It’s important to take control of this urge and just turn the TV off or stop yourself from Googling the story. I’m certainly not suggesting that you turn a blind eye to what is going on in the world, but you can make an informed choice about how you find out
  • If you’re particularly drawn to the story, limit yourself to checking the latest developments once a day
  • Choosing print media (newspapers and online articles) over television coverage can also reduce the emotional impact of the story
  • Avoid imagining yourself in the same situation as those who have lost loved ones. This is a very common thing to do and I think we do this for one of two reasons. Firstly, we do it as sort of a strange and superstitious insurance policy (if we imagine how bad it would feel, we’ll somehow be protected a bit if it ever did happen to us); and secondly, we think that imagining how it would feel might ease some of the suffering of those who have lost loved ones. Unfortunately, neither of these things is true. All imagining it will do is have you feeling a sense of loss and powerlessness
  • If you feel very strongly about it, you could send a message to one or more of the families who have lost loved ones. Brief, heartfelt messages of sympathy and support can help families keep going
  • To help with feelings of powerlessness, you could make a donation to a charity of your choice, in honour of the lives lost on MH17
  • Use what has happened as motivation to live better in your own life and appreciate what you have. Make the changes you’ve been thinking of making
  • Keep up with your usual life and activities.

Helping children to cope:

  • The most important thing you can do is to strictly limit your children’s exposure to images of the plane and crash site. This is true for children of all ages and includes young teenagers. If you’re watching the news coverage, turn it off the instant your children come into the room. You can always catch up on it later
  • Be very mindful of not talking about the crash and how terrible it is in front of your children
  • Tell school-aged children in an upfront and honest way what has happened. There is no way you can fully protect them from news like this and it’s best if they hear about it from you rather than in the playground. This is even more important if you or your partner works fly-in, fly-out (FIFO). I know many FIFO families can joke that their kids think that their dad (or mum) works at the airport or on a plane. At times like this, this sort of misunderstanding can lead to children feeling very anxious about their parent working away
  • Following on from the previous point, giving a factual explanation like; “A plane was flying over a country where there is a war. Some soldiers thought it was a different plane and they shot it down. It crashed and sadly everybody on the plane died. It’s a terrible disaster but it’s a very, very unusual thing to happen. There are no wars in Australia and a plane has never been shot down in Australia”
  • Reassure your children that they can talk to you about it and ask you questions if they like. That way if they hear something at school they can check with you. If they do ask you, answer as honestly and factually as possible
  • Offer some extra comfort and reassurance if your child seems a bit down, or worried or out of sorts. It’s normal for children to show signs of shock and grief after disasters like this one, especially if they have seen images of the plane, crash site or the victims
  • Never use the plane crash as part of your discipline approach, for example to tell your children they should be thankful for what they have. As an adult you might make this sense of what has happened, but children aren’t likely to see things in this way. It’s too abstract
  • Keep busy with fun family activities. Turn off the TV and go outside to kick a ball, ride your bikes or go to the playground.

If someone you know is directly affected by the MH17 crash:

  • It’s normal to not know what to say to someone after such a terrible loss, so just say “I don’t know what to say”, or “I know nothing I say will help, but I want you to know that I care”
  • Don’t avoid them just because of your own discomfort. Keep up your usual level of contact if possible. Being physically present can be a comfort to others at times of loss
  • Never say you know how others feel. Ever. You don’t, even if you have lost someone close to you or been through something similar (which is obviously very unlikely)
  • Ask directly if there is anything you can do to help, but don’t be surprised if they don’t know. Usually people can’t think straight and have no idea what they need or want when they’re in such a state of shock. You could ask a family member what you can do to help, or look for practical things you can do, like mowing lawns or delivering firewood to the house. Money vouchers for gardening or cleaning services or supermarket ‘gift cards’ are usually welcome
  • Respect the family’s privacy
  • Consider having some supportive counselling to help you deal with your own feelings of loss and sadness. Dealing with your own grief can make you more emotionally available to support others.