Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dealing with Tragedy

'Tis true. This park ranger working in Alaska made a quiet, yet echoing, statement prompted by tragedy. Considering the amount of humanity (and in many cases, inhumanity) we often deal with as interpreters, we have little training on how to handle difficult discussions. I do not believe anybody was prepared to receive the news of the massacre in Colorado. How can one prepare for tragedy?

Many places of history preserve stories of great inhumanity. Murder, genocide, violence, war, slavery, and other atrocities speckle the historic landscape, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. These stories are often preserved at historical sites. The stories are told for a greater humanity, showing how far we as society have come, allowing the stories of hope and goodness and love and triumph to shine brighter than the evil, honoring memories, providing places for catharsis and healing, and not forgetting victims. Maybe the active "remembering" would be more appropriate word choice for thinking of the people impacted by atrocities. Battlefields, cemeteries, memorials, concentration camps, natural disaster sites, human disaster sites, are among types of "sites of conscience" and people visit these sites. Interpreters work at these sites. Interpreters are people, too-- people who sometimes have to help provide opportunities for sharing, learning, forgiving, growing, and healing, too. Interpreters are a part of that experience.

When I worked at the battlefield, I encountered a woman in her early 50s meandering through the museum. I approached her, as I would any time I roved the museum, and asked her how she was doing. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "those poor boys and their mothers." I was startled. While visiting the battlefield could prove an emotional experience, I rarely encountered the raw emotion through tears. In the following conversation, I learned that her son had recently been deployed and she struggled with being a mother of a soldier in a war zone. She commented on the casualty numbers (around 24,000 killed, wounded, or missing during the Battle of Stones River), but specifically clung to the number of killed. That is a difficult number to pin down, but estimated about 3,000. She pointed out that "meant 3,000 mothers did not have a son come home because of this battle." She personally related to that tragedy.

I was heartbroken for the teary visitor and felt helpless. I listened the best I could, but didn't know what I should do. What can I say to comfort her? Should I give her a hug? Should I just stay still? I don't exactly remember how I handled it, but I remember staying with her for a while in the museum and eventually walking out to lobby, probably wishing her a good rest of her day. Because I am trained to smile and greet people and provide information and create positive opportunities for visitor connections. I am not trained in tragedy. Even when working at sites of tragedy (I worked at a battlefield before and now at a site that commemorates a story about forced deportation). But then again, I suppose nobody fully can be fully prepared to deal with it.

I know I am not the only interpreter who has experienced dealing with a conversation of difficult content. I know I am not the only park ranger who has dealt with visitors' tears. We do the best we can in the moment with the tools in our interpersonal and interpretive toolboxes. I personally feel more confident in handling visitor interactions about tragedy now, if for no other reason than from experience and some outside training (the American Red Cross offers courses in trauma and mental health for those who respond to disasters). But my strong facade that appears during these interactions does not change my human heart and its tendency to hurt when it hears of others' hurt. It is still hurting over thinking of the events of Colorado; I don't think that will go away any time soon.

*These thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (past or present).

**I would like to point out that the National Park Service does provide some interpretive training for facilitated dialogue and handling controversial topics. It isn't necessarily a training readily available for all front-line interpreters, however.

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