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Supporting those who were on scene is a delicate dance

Boston and the larger community are struggling to cope with the impact of awful scenes of catastrophic injuries and terror. A friend writes to me for advice: “I have a close friend who has worked the medical tent for many Boston Marathons. He saw some ‘awful stuff’ when the tent was converted for triage. I think people are naturally curious, but friends initiating conversation repeatedly is probably not helpful. Do you have any advice for his well-meaning friends?”

I have some experience in disaster psychiatry, and so I wrote him back to say that the it is best for friends to understand that those on the scene were part of the collateral damage. While their presence there was a blessing for those who were injured, it makes them secondary casualties.

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Friends can reach out to show their concern and offer to help. Send food and a thoughtful card. Invite your friend to take a walk for some private time to just be together in a quiet, private place. Don’t ask questions or place your needs ahead of theirs. Encouraging them to vent or relive the experience is often not helpful.

Let them lead. It’s like dancing. Showing love through listening is best. Suppress your curiosity and the natural urge to tell them that you know how they feel.

Disasters can be managed effectively when communities build networks of resilience to provide readily accessible practical assistance and emotional support.

Dr. Steven Locke


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