Friday, June 26, 2009

The Crisis that Isn't: RIP Michael Jackson

The Quarterback is somewhat at a loss for a topic for today because apparently the only thing that happened yesterday is that Michael Jackson died. And while I certainly was sorry to hear that, the death of Michael Jackson is not, in point of fact, a "Critical Incident." This might be a good time to talk about what makes a critical incident, and what doesn't.

A critical incident is an event that overwhelms one's usual coping mechanisms. All of us have a set of skills that help us to deal with stressful situations. And all of us have some point past which we can't deal anymore. That point is when incidents become critical, and it is different for everyone.

Certainly there are some things that we can safely presume will constitute critical incidents for most people. Watching your spouse be murdered, for example, would overwhelm most people's ability to grieve and move on. And certainly there are some things that are generally not critical incidents for most people. For example, the death of an elderly grandparent after a long but not particularly painful illness is sad, but not usually overwhelming.

There are a lot of incidents that lie in the middle. What is intolerable for one person is within the realm of tolerable for another. One person may be seriously traumatized by a shooting in the neighborhood, while another is not, perhaps because it happens more frequently for them. As my frequent readers know, there are some predictors of traumatic stress: believing that you are going to die, sensory exposure to the event, triggering of past events, violation of your worldview and the involvement of children in the event are all predictive, but there are others that can cause trauma and these can all be there and a person still not be traumatized.

The death of Michael Jackson is not, for most people, a critical incident. It is sudden and perhaps shocking, and you may feel that it is sad. But it is within the realm of what most of us can cope with. It won't cause most of us nightmares or loss of appetite or drinking or depression. There may be exceptions, either for his family and close friends, those who were there when he died, or for people who have recent similar losses in their own lives. And if you are traumatized by it, that doesn't make you "wrong" or "crazy," just unusual.

Arguably, the death of Michael Jackson is more likely to be traumatizing than the death, also yesterday, of Farrah Fawcett. Hers was a long time coming, she was older, and she was ill, so it was not as sudden and perhaps not as shocking. But neither are likely to traumatize the general public.

Meanwhile, every family who did experience trauma this week now has an added wrinkle. The families of Neda Soltan and Ed Thomas will now add to their story, "and then Michael Jackson died, and everyone stopped looking at us very suddenly." This may be good and it may be bad. Most likely it will be some of each. But let's not lose sight of what a real critical incident really looks like.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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