My feelings were terror and my actions were prayers yelled aloud, repeated over and over. Then the building stilled, alarms blared, lights flashed and I joined the hundreds of people racing down stairs to safety. The following days, weeks and months were spent communally enduring aftershock after aftershock, both of seismic waves, and emotions. And just as the aftershocks varied in magnitude and intensity, so did the feelings and experiences of everyone I knew.
To be sure, there were many shared emotions. The first days were spent having numerous conversations expressing incredible gratitude that there was no loss of life! We praised building codes and solid infrastructure, while often reflecting on tragic opposite events around the globe. We shared over and over again the stories of where we were and what we did when the quake struck. We shared nervous laughter and more vulnerable tears. We shared how we first got in touch with our children and other loved ones. We expressed our fear and exasperation at the unpredictable relentless aftershocks. We shared how our behaviors had changed. Some of us were sleeping all together in one room, or moving to the basement to feel safer. We were checking in on neighbors we didn’t know. We were having spontaneous conversations with strangers in the grocery store aisle, telling our stores and listening to others. We shared. And we shared. And we shared.
I had sat through safety trainings on earthquake readiness, but those trainings only prepare you for what to do, not for how you will feel and how you will act.
Shared trauma can bring a community together. It has a way of rearranging society, pushing essential elements of survival to the forefront. In much worse tragedies, those elements are very basic. They are food, water, power, medical care…etc.
In Alaska, we were lucky and we knew that, but we also needed to heal. And that healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many. For those that had experienced the 1964 quake, their terror was much greater. Many were surprised by the intensity of their reactions, believing that they had long healed from this early childhood trauma, only to have numerous triggered memories and emotions. Many expressed frustration that they were not able to “get over” this event. This “emotional self judging” was pervasive, with people of all ages and experiences questioning how they were feeling.
Honest sharing is what helped. Many were comforted by the words of our Governor and Mayor, both of whom quickly and publically spoke to their own feelings of fear for themselves and their families. Another public official, interviewed on the news the night of the quake stated, “We have all gone through a terrifying thing which might cause or trigger mental health issues. This is o.k. It is to be expected. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even though it appears damage was not catastrophic, this was no small thing.”
Sharing these words with an anxious public was important. It was validating and encouraging. It allowed people to keep sharing honestly and to seek further help if needed. And this encouragement needed to be ongoing, and continues today. Alaskans experienced several months of strong aftershocks, and it was incredibly helpful to have officials, mental health professionals, and friends continue to name how difficult this was for all of us. Being able to share that trauma, without fear of someone expressing the need to “get over it,” was empowering. When those negative sentiments were unfortunately shared, often through social media, the public outcry was swift. Many more voices were validating the difficulty of what we were experiencing, and encouraging people to keep sharing.
Communities care for one another by sharing. Communities experiencing trauma may need to share more. This sharing might be in the form of basic needs, and incredible generosity is often seen during times of much greater tragedy. However, generous sharing can also be the validation of a vast range of emotions and making available safe spaces to process and recover. These safe spaces can be formal or informal. Therapists and trauma counselors reported high numbers of individuals and families reaching out for help. School counselors and teachers took ample time in classrooms, encouraging children to tell their stories and process their fears. Experts wrote articles in the paper with advice on how to manage anxiety, and local activity centers and museums offered free admission to encourage play and community togetherness.
That healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many.
While traumatic events will always be unique, needing specific response, it is in sharing that we heal. We need to keep caring for each other...in Alaska, in Puerto Rico, in Haiti...and beyond. Find your way to help. Visible suffering may help guide you to know how and what to share in more vulnerable places, but remember to also ask about what is not seen. We are in this together.
Rev. Elizabeth Schultz is a Presbyterian Pastor living in Anchorage, Alaska. From 2015 to 2018 she served as the Community and Nonprofit Liaison, and policy analyst on Housing and Homelessness, for Alaska Governor Bill Walker. In 2019 Elizabeth joined the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership as Coordinator of Outreach. Elizabeth continues to serve as a Minister at Large in the Presbytery of the Yukon. Elizabeth and her husband, Matt, are the proud parents of three children and love to call Alaska home!