How To Talk To Someone After A Tragedy

Each day we wake up to news of a fresh tragedy: attacks are occurring regularly across the globe in what seems like the bloodiest, most heartbreaking summer I can ever remember.  Mourning has become almost the default setting as one demographic after another experiences a traumatic, deadly event.

Two of those traumatic events have hit a little too close to home for me recently.  On June 28, a bomb and gun attack by militants occurred at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the main airport where I have flown in and out of dozens of times in the past few years while living in Istanbul, and where my family had flown through recently to visit me in Turkey.  41 people were killed and over 200 injured.  Watching the news come in while sitting in my apartment in Istanbul, just across the city, ripped my heart open.  I couldn’t bring myself to watch the videos, other than a brief one of people running through the terminals, and I still haven’t watched them.  I don’t plan to.  It’s too much for me.  Ataturk Airport isn’t an abstract, far-away place; it’s somewhere that has been an important locale, both physically and symbolically, since I first started coming to Istanbul in 2013; it’s part of my home, my heart, the center of a city I love deeply.

Then, on July 15, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey.  I had flown to the US to visit my parents the day before and I watched the coup unfold on social media for hours before it hit the media.  No one was absolutely certain what was going on, just that there were soldiers and tanks in the streets, the police had been disarmed in the airports, the bridges that connected the two sides of the city had been shut down, and rumors of gunshots in the neighborhoods near the bridges.  My husband’s plane from an out-of-country work trip landed in the airport less than an hour after the coup had begun.  His phone battery was dead and I couldn’t get hold of him.  All I could do was send him messages and frantically scroll through the news, waiting for a response.

My husband was, and is, safe and the coup raged through the night but had failed by morning, leaving around 300 people dead.  Everything has more or less gone back to normal, even as the country is feeling its way forward post-coup.  But the experience of not being able to get in touch with my husband during the coup left me severely shaken.  It took me days to emerge from the fog that came along with a too-close-for-comfort brush with one of those traumatic events that other people read about on the news but never have a reason to connect to personally.  For me, it was extremely personal.

In the days following the coup attempt, I had many friends and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t talked to in years, reach out to make sure we were okay and show their sympathy, and I truly appreciated the support.  But I also had to deal with people trying to engage me in conversations about the coup that made me feel worse about it rather than better.  And it made me think– with all the tragedy going on in the world these days, it’s worth it to think about how you’re talking to those who have been affected.  I can’t speak for others, but for me, these are guidelines I wish people had stuck to when talking to me after the coup.

1. Don’t treat it like a news item

Seriously.  Don’t bring it up casually in conversation and discuss it as if you’re talking about a new Wal-Mart opening or who was nominated for some political position or other.  Let me reiterate: to people who have experienced the event, it is not political, it is personal.

About a week after the Ataturk Airport bombing, we were in Prague and joined a walking historical tour.  In our group was a middle-aged American guy from New Hampshire, and when we said where we were from, his immediate reaction was, “Istanbul?  You guys just had a bombing there!” in an almost chipper way.  Yes, Mr. Socks-With-Sandals, we did have a bombing there; no, we do not want to casually discuss it with you.  If you are not going to show at least a tiny bit of sympathy and support, don’t bring it up.

2. Don’t ask us to explain the complex political context of the event

A big disclaimer for this one: I mean, don’t ask us to do this right after the event.  A lot of people have been asking me questions about Turkey’s political history and that is fine; I am happy to answer them…. now.  I wasn’t ready to for the first few days after the coup.  I was stressed out and grieving and heartbroken and feeling way too fragile to have a political discussion about it all.  The coup happened on a Friday and it wasn’t until the following Wednesday that I started feeling the least bit human again.

So if you know someone who has experienced something like this and have a lot of questions, you can ask, just give them some time to process.  And that time might be different for everyone.  Read their cues.  If they act distressed when you ask, or if they seem to be avoiding the topic, let it drop.

3. If you DO engage us in conversation, ask genuine questions rather than trying to get information that will support your own preconceived ideas of what happened

I cannot tell you how infuriating it is when people approach me to “talk” about things that have happened in Turkey, and most recently the coup, and then argue with me about them because they have already decided they know everything about Turkey that there is to know, based on a handful of articles they’ve read on CNN or whatever.  These are mostly people who have decided that Turkey is a Muslim country, and therefore it is like every other Muslim country around it.  (Super quick socio-political lesson: Turkey was founded as a secular democracy that gave women the right to vote before the US did.  It isn’t an Arab country and they don’t speak Arabic there, and the majority of Muslims in Turkey belong to a different denomination than most of the countries around it.  Also, Iran isn’t an Arab country and they don’t speak Arabic there either.  Saying that Turkey and Iraq are basically the same– which someone did to me, twice, in the immediate days following the coup– is like saying Mexico and the US are the same, because hey, we’re right beside each other and are both Christian-majority, ignoring the vast historical and linguistic differences and the fact that Mexico is Catholic-majority and the US is Protestant-majority.)

Look: I have lived there for two years.  I live it day in and day out, and am surrounded by Turks all the time.  I am decently well-versed in Turkish history and politics, and I can almost guarantee that I know more about European and Middle Eastern politics than you do anyway.  You can try to argue with me if you want, but you won’t win… unless I decide that I am too tired to deal with your condescending ass, which is what has been happening more often than not lately.  If this is your attitude, just give us both the gift of staying away from me and keeping to the comments sections of online articles, where you can shout into the echo chamber as much as you wish, which is all you really want anyway.

4. Don’t expect us to be able to concentrate or care about other things for a while

Again, for those first few days after the coup, I was having trouble concentrating on… pretty much anything.  I was spacing out in the middle of conversations, and particularly was having a hard time caring about minute details that other people were talking about.  It’s not personal, I promise.  But when I was still very worried about my husband’s safety and the future of the country we call home, I just couldn’t think about anything else for a while.

5.  But do get in touch and express support

Really.  Having people check in on us and show their (unbiased) love, sympathy, and support meant a lot.  Being apart from my husband during that time and having to just watch and deal with it on my own from almost 9,000 miles away was really difficult, and having that support did make me feel better and less like I was dealing with it alone.

 

When talking about this with a friend of mine who is from Aleppo, Syria, her response was, “Yes, I always tell people that they’re talking about politics, but I’m talking about my life.”  That pretty much sums it up.  I would like to believe that the world will become a less traumatic, less sad place soon, but if the past few weeks are any indication, I’m not sure that will happen.  In the meantime, the least we can do is all try to be a little more aware when speaking to each other about how our words are affecting people who are already hurting.

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