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Verbal First Aid in the Face of The Unspeakable

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Loss, Grief and Verbal First Aid

We don't usually watch the news because it is usually so filled with madness and fear, but a little while back my husband needed to hear the weather report. Unfortunately before we could find out about any imminent storms, we first had to hear every viscous detail in the ongoing BP Gulf disaster, some dire predictions about a new financial debacle and finally an insane, unpredicted, and vicious attack on nursery children in China.

They did not explain much except to say that a man (perhaps the third in recent history) barged into a nursery and began attacking them wildly with a hammer. He then poured gasoline over himself and lit a match.

I have worked and been friends with countless military and paramilitary men and women. I can't imagine anyone, regardless of stress hardiness or training, who would not be disgusted or horrified by that situation. I certainly was and I have heard stories and stood at scenes that have made life-long imprints.

I have been teaching Verbal First Aid principles to lay and professional audiences since 1994. And somehow it always comes down to this. At some point during the talk, a hand slowly raises and the question--in one form or another-- is asked:

What do you say when a parent loses a kid? What do you say when it seems like there's nothing to say?

The Two Questions of Suffering and Healing

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I hear two parts to that question:

The first part is: What do we say to the parent, to the child or to any other injured party to help facilitate healing in the most immediately necessary way?

That part we believe we can address very easily with Verbal First Aid. The simple answer is this: We say exactly what we would say to anyone else with a cut, a burn, a contusion, or a broken bone. We use words as medicine to speak directly to the person's autonomic system, facilitating a more rapid and effective healing. The context matters less than the immediate rapport between you and the person you're helping and the specific suggestions for healing you deliver.

The second part is harder: What do we say about the horror? What do we say about the insanity of a random and seemingly incomprehensible loss? What do we do with sorrow and suffering? I think these are actually questions of theology more than medicine, but I do believe that Verbal First Aid can be of help here as well. Just not in the same way.

Allow me to explain.

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A social worker I am supervising came in with a case that was very disturbing to him.

A client came into his office in terrible discomfort. She had just lost a baby in a late-term miscarriage. She was crying, sometimes sobbing, wanting to know "why?" She and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for two years and suddenly her hopes--and the love she had begun to feel--had been dashed.

A young and eager social worker, he immediately tried to console her by offering words of encouragement: "You'll get pregnant again." "It's okay." "There's a reason for everything."

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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)

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