How to Deal With Unexpected Emotion

When a student at her college died suddenly, my daughter called in dismay. In conversation it became clear that the shock was so great, she did not know how to feel. Has this ever happened to you?

Powerful emotion that arises suddenly can be overwhelming. Without preparation or experience dealing with such things—often the case with young people—the emotion floods in too strongly. Besides being upset you feel confused, even frightened by the power of the feeling.

I offered my daughter sympathy, told her I was so sorry this had happened. I listened as she cried. That seemed to shake loose her confusion and let her identify the feeling of grief at the campus tragedy. In time and through conversation, she got past the initial shock so that her emotional system could process the powerful sense of loss for what it was.

When dramatically bad things happen, it is normal to feel overwhelmed with strong emotion at first. Many of us felt that way immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The sooner you can identify the underlying emotion, generally some version of sadness or grief, the more quickly you can begin to process it and eventually work your way back to normal.

Shocking events are a jolt to the emotional system. Not knowing how to respond makes it worse: you get upset about feeling so upset. The most effective response is to identify the true feeling under the shock so as to work through feelings of loss and be able to move on.

My daughter told me later that our conversation helped her deal with her pain, and allowed her to help other students as well.