Q: My parents live in Pakistan. In the recent, major earthquake they suffered injuries and damage in their home. I live in the United States and have a brother and sister who are close to my parents. I find myself worried all the time about their well-being. There are times when I feel claustrophobic, panicked, and very sad. They need help and I haven’t gone there to do anything. How do I cope with this?
A: A major tragedy in one’s family can be overwhelming. You are fortunate they are alive. A part of us wants to be involved and helpful and another wants to keep distance and avoid the horror. We have caring instincts and self-protective instincts. This is normal. Are you worried you could be a victim of a disaster? Take a little time and reflect on your various reactions.
Your being in the United States may be a major asset at this time. You are safe, in contact with them, and have work and resources to help. Your panicking is a sign of feeling helpless and trapped. When you feel this way, breathe deeply, and find a spacious space. This will relieve some of the anxiety. After you feel better, think about what is the best way for you to offer help. This will empower you. There is a lot you can do. In addition to financial resources, you can comfort them through phone calls and emails. Offer empathy and support that they will be okay. Loss is inevitable and hard times make us touch what is most valuable in life.
Q: I cannot stop thinking about the various calamities in the last year: the tsunami, hurricane in New Orleans, earthquake in South Asia, and mudslides in Guatemala. My quiet and comfortable life seems so far away and insulated from these events. I am not moved or really able to become a volunteer in one of these places. How can I live my life in a way that is helpful?
A: You ask an important question that is often overlooked. When a group of people needs help, the focus does go to bringing them relief. This is, of course, critical. But, those of us living our own calmer lives in our own cities start to ponder upon the meaning and value of our existence. We feel a bit guilty that others are suffering terribly while things are okay for us. We also feel grateful that we are safe. Such events are a reminder of how precious and short life is. How then do we want to live? What is most important to us each day? Such events can deeply compel us to review and live our own lives from a deeper, more compassionate, and conscious level. Our attitudes, values, and lifestyles ultimately affect the whole world. A server at a restaurant bringing food with joy and care is doing a service in the community. A doctor in the American suburbs, who offers more time to listen to her patient’s maladies, is helping to heal a human being. A motel clerk who takes time to give directions to his guests is making life easier for the traveler. These simple acts help make a society kinder, more connected, better prepared for a disaster. Essentially, it is an attitude of thinking of another’s needs.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com