Story by Lilly Watson, photo by Nikki Baxendale
NEW YORK, N.Y. – While many services provided to disaster survivors may vary depending upon the type and size of the disaster, there is one type of service the Red Cross always brings to those in crisis: emotional support.
Since the days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, Red Cross Spiritual Care Teams have provided the Spiritual Care Services of presence, words of comfort, hope and prayer to people affected by the disaster. Red Cross clients and the family of loved ones who have faced profound loss, sometimes including the death or a spouse or loved one, can open up to Spiritual Care Team members about how this trauma has affected them and their spirituality.
Team members are ordained, licensed or commissioned by a religious authority to function in the specialized ministry of care or equivalent chaplaincy training.
Matthew Cobb, a Red Cross Spiritual Team member on the Hurricane Sandy operation in New York from Manhattan, Kansas, believed that his specialized training helps him understand religious backgrounds and cultural sensitivities, but he sometimes cannot reach everyone straight away. Here are six steps that all people can take to provide emotional support to people feeling loss and desperation:
1. Check the person’s breathing. Encouraging deep breaths can reduce anxiety and panic and allows survivors to begin getting in touch with their emotions. “When you’re connected to your breath, you can get in touch with your true emotions and begin getting it out through expression,” Cobb said.
2. Make sure the person is drinking plenty of water. Even if a storm survivor says he or she is not thirsty, chemicals in the brain are released during times of acute stress and anxiety that make people thirsty or dehydrated. The pause required to take a sip of water can lower the breath and help a person in an emotional state begin to refocus.
3. Pass the tissues. “Offering tissues to someone in distress lets them know that you recognize something is broken and that the expression of that is natural,” Cobb said.
4. Hugging and contact allows a shocked and grieving person to feel they can collapse. By being close to someone physically, his or her breath can begin to move from shallow and anxious to be on pace with the steady and deep breaths of the person of support.
5. Be accepting of thanks. “When someone in anguish thanks you for being there, you can know that appreciation means that he or she is moving out of imminent emotional distress,” Cobb said. Receiving these thanks fully and graciously lets the victim feel reciprocal of your service.
6. Look for early signs of acceptance. “When someone asks you to keep them in your thoughts or prayers, it signals that they are aware that this is a tough situation,” Cobb said. “While it will be hard, he or she is recognizing that there will be an end with your emotional support.”
While emotional support is Cobb and other members of the Spiritual Care Team’s specialty, many Red Cross workers bring this type of relief to everyone they serve. While Spiritual Team Members are trained to know the right words to say to people facing severe loss, the presence of a Red Cross worker can often be a sign of support to those trying to move on after a disaster.
“Just being there is so important, even before you say something,” Cobb said.