Beirut: Why Do We Feel Guilty About Disasters Overseas

*Trigger Warning*

We will be discussing the recent explosion in Beirut, Lebanon and navigating the extremely difficult feelings that emerge when tragedies occur in our home/ancestral lands and countries of origin.

Please remember to always prioritize your own wellbeing when reading information and viewing images on the internet. We will be expanding on this later in the post as well.

Our deepest and heartfelt condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the Beirut disaster. We are praying that better days and healing will find everyone who has lost their home, livelihood, and sense of safety in this world 💛

Tuesday August 4th 2020 was a mere few weeks ago. The way time passes in this pandemic is strange- sometimes a week feels like a day and a month feels like an entire year.

Yet for many Lebanese-Canadians, that particular Tuesday will always be a vivid memory and a detailed snapshot in time.

When Time Freezes

In an article by the Toronto Star, a UofT student describes what he felt when he saw headlines about the massive explosion in Beirut, the city where his family still lives. He recalls the deep sinking helplessness of hearing about a disaster in a place that may be several thousand miles away, yet harbours his heart and soul.

It’s a devastating experience that becomes branded in your memory, even after learning that the people you love are physically safe. Scientists call this a ‘flashbulb memory’. This type of memory is formed when we learn about a momentous or traumatizing piece of information. It tends to be vivid and unusually detailed- most people remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, and the tiny intricacies of their environment that don't normally become part of long-term memory.

Many of us who live abroad have experienced this, sometimes on more than one occasion. The media irresponsibly frames disastrous events as normal, as if it’s just another day in that part of the world.

Yet for the global diaspora of Lebanon and other countries, these are anything but far-away tragedies that cannot touch them. For people with loved ones, dear memories, and deep roots in these countries, it hits incredibly close to home.

In this post, we will aim to help our readers make some sense of the complex feelings that arise when disasters occur in home/ancestral lands and countries of origin.

You can expect to learn about:

The concept of survivor’s guilt

Trauma and disassociation induced by media coverage

Tips and strategies to help manage these complicated emotions

The Second-Gen Perspective

Like many of our readers, I am an immigrant.

My  parents left almost everything and everyone they knew to pursue what they hoped would be a better life for themselves and their children.

Most families who have migrated to the West have relatives in the countries they left behind- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Perhaps we even had friends of our own if we were old enough!

And as second-generation Canadians, our identities oscillate between two cultures, two sets of expectations, and two different ideas of what it means to belong.

When a catastrophic event like the Beirut explosion occurs, the constant tug of war pauses and a line is drawn in the sand.

This poem below captures the feeling well.

The relationship second-generation Canadians have with their non-Western culture is often complicated.

When a disaster occurs in that country, second-gens may feel guilty about not being personally affected enough. We grapple with this alongside our parents and grandparents, who are experiencing a different kind of guilt.

Leaving Is Complicated

Our parents' decision to leave their home countries (by choice or otherwise) shaped our lives.

That decision underlies everything we do- the careers we pursue, the relationships we develop, even what we consider to be a life well lived.

As much as it shaped us, the act of leaving transformed the lives of that first generation that came to the West. Many of them escaped, leaving behind others in less than ideal conditions. Some left to be in a better position to support those at home.

Either way, complex emotions arise when you leave a country. It is deepened when you leave a country that is being subjected to violence and turmoil.

Survivor's Guilt

When catastrophes like the Beirut explosion occur, those who are living abroad may feel a strong sense of survivor's guilt.  

This term is not reserved solely for immediately survivors of traumatic events.

For someone in the diaspora, the guilt does not necessarily come from surviving the life-threatening situation itself. It comes from having the privilege to watch and process the events from afar.

This can show up as:

Feeling helpless and disconnected

Experiencing disempowerment

Having nightmares or other dreams about times spent in that country

Feeling a deep sense of shame

Being glued to social media or the news and hanging onto every update

Experiencing a flood of regret and resentment for the people or factors keeping you on this side of the world

Feeling trapped in your current life: "I should be there right now"

A need to punish yourself or behave self-destructively

Survivor's Guilt And Disassociation

One of the ways we end up dealing with this anguish is to disassociate, or mentally separate, from it.

Over the last several weeks, our social media feeds were flooded with videos and images from the Beirut explosion and its aftermath. Many of these videos are incredibly disturbing. Some were purposely edited to provide a shock factor and thus go viral.

Dealing with this onslaught of information on top of the intense guilt is an incredibly overwhelming experience.

In order to re-gain a sense of control and equilibrium, it is very common to feel numb and disassociated from what you are watching and reading.

I heard from several people that they felt like stomping on their phones and walking away. Watching from afar was too painful.

This, of course creates further feelings of guilt and confusion!

Being physically far away is the root of the guilt- feeling emotionally distant seems 'too easy'. It is common to feel like even numbness is a privilege.

Does this sounds familiar? If you or your loved ones have been going through this anguish for the last several weeks, you understand how mentally exhausting it can be to carry this guilt.

I would like to help you understand this feeling a little better.

Trauma And Dissociation

Trauma is commonly associated with directly experiencing or witnessing a violent or threatening situation.

I like to use an expanded definition or trauma: anything that occurs entirely outside of our control and overwhelms our coping capacities.

Our nervous system stores trauma in a way that does not depend on time. When we experience something that reminds us of the trauma, our body reacts and seeks safety.

One of the ways our nervous system seeks safety is to disassociate from what is happening. Feeling distant, numb, and disconnected are all ways we cope with the anguish of survivor's guilt.

This is a very common trauma response.

The aftermath of the Beirut disaster is outside our control. Coupled with survivor's guilt and feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from the media coverage, it's no wonder our coping capacities are fragile right now!

Strategies To Cope With Survivor's Guilt

As you navigate these complicated feelings, please try and be compassionate with yourself. This underlies every strategy presented here!

1. Limit Social Media And News Coverage

Limiting or even restricting graphic and traumatizing footage is important when you are feeling overwhelmed. It's common to feel drawn to the horror. Some people may also feel more productive when they are getting updates.

However, consider how it makes you feel. Do you feel informed or agitated? Is it making you feel more or less disconnected from the situation?

While there is growing awareness of how  to responsibly share news on social media, many are still posting and re-posting graphic content without appropriate warnings. It's okay to limit your exposure to this content- you are no less informed if you do. Seeking news away social media that is aimed to inform, not shock, is a better option.

2. Connect With People Who Can Relate

There are many, many people who can relate to the complicated and painful feelings you are navigating.

Try sharing your experience with friends and family members who you feel safe with. Isolating yourself will make you feel alone, when the reality is quite different.

3. Engage In A Helpful Way

Lending meaningful support to others is possible even from a distance. Donating money to charities who are on the ground doing effective work is an important way to contribute.

We can also mobilize our community to get involved by organizing fundraisers. Some organizations may need an extra set of hands as they organize donations, create care packages etc. Volunteering your time towards these efforts is making a meaningful difference.

4. Allow The Feelings

Like most things that are important, this one isn't easy. Allowing yourself to feel the guilt, confusion, regret etc. as it surfaces may be better for you in the long run than pushing it all down.

Once again, I would like to direct you to this amazing resource on distress tolerance.

Prioritize your safety and start small- set a timer for 20 seconds and for that amount of time, do not distract yourself.

If this is too overwhelming, or the feelings do no become more tolerable over time, it may be an indication to seek help.

5. Fill In The Blanks

For many second-gens, tragedies prompt us to reflect on our connection with our non-Western culture. Allow yourself to assess and re-assess what is important to you.

Have you always wanted to learn the language? Perhaps you have been curious about your grandparents' stories from the homeland but could never gather the courage to ask. Learning about our ancestors' lives can help us feel connected to a country in a more meaningful way and foster positive emotions.

This may help us feel something other than guilt and challenging emotions when we think of that place!  It is also okay if you are not seeking to deepen your relationship with a particular culture.

Over To You...

I hope that reading this piece helped you feel more validated. There is no how-to manual for how to cope with tragedies in our home/ancestral lands and countries of origin. We can only do our best.

'Do' seems to be the key here! I encourage you to take an active (i.e. donating, volunteering, engaging people on the issue) rather than passive (i.e. social media) role in your response. You may find that channeling these complex emotions into good work makes a huge difference.

I want to hear from you: if a piece of your heart is in Beirut, how have you been coping?

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!