When your family, neighborhood, city, or area of the country is affected by a natural disaster, it’s normal and necessary to feel grief and the traumatic experience of actually witnessing and surviving the event may be consuming you. This book will help you understand and embrace your difficult thoughts and feelings. It will be a compassionate companion to you as you move through shock and numbness and struggle with ongoing grief symptoms such as fear, guilt, and sadness. Some of the 100 ideas explain the basic principles of grief and mourning and how they apply in the aftermath of a natural disaster, while others offer immediate, here-and-now suggestions of things you can do today to express your grief and live with meaning in each moment.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a speaker, a grief counselor, and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of Healing a Parent's Grieving Heart, The Mourner’s Book of Courage, Understanding Your Grief, and many other bestselling books on healing in grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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Healing Your Grief When Disaster Strikes
100 Practical Ideas for Coping after a Tornado, Hurricane, Flood, Earthquake, Wildfire, or Other Natural Disaster
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2014 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE "TRAUMATIZED"
"I think anyone whose life has been turned upside down by a disaster has been traumatized."
— Nicol Andrews
You've been traumatized by a natural disaster. The word "traumatize" comes from the Greek words meaning "wound" and "pierce." You have experienced, witnessed, and/or been touched by a powerful and violent act of nature, and your mind and soul have been wounded by the devastation.
In this sense, the word "trauma" also refers to intense feelings of shock, fear, anxiety, and helplessness surrounding the event. Trauma is caused by events of such intensity or magnitude of horror or destruction that they would overwhelm any human being's capacity to cope.
Sudden and violent natural disasters create a kind of psychic injury. Those who experience them are almost always left with frightening and often intrusive thoughts about the event itself as well as its aftermath. Your grief may naturally be complicated by the traumatic nature of the event.
Remember — your grief is a normal response to an abnormal event.
If you have been having frightening or intrusive thoughts about the natural disaster, share them with someone else today.
FIRST, SEEK SAFETY AND COMFORT
"Anyone who says they're not afraid at the time of a hurricane is either a fool or a liar, or a little bit of both."
— Anderson Cooper
After a traumatic experience, it's natural to feel vulnerable, unsafe, and anxious. Your nervous system is telling your brain that the world isn't a safe place right now. Something violent has happened and, your mind thinks (consciously or subconsciously), it could happen again.
To overcome your trauma, you must locate yourself among people and in places that make you feel safe. If this means moving in with a friend or relative temporarily, that's OK. If this means avoiding certain places or people, that's OK, too.
What calms and comforts you? Taking a walk? Cuddling with someone you love? Hugging your pet? Relaxing in the tub? Yoga or meditation or prayer? Identify activities that soothe you, and turn to them when your anxiety is high.
You will not be able to mourn if you feel unsafe or overly anxious. Seek safety and comfort first; then you can begin to slowly embrace your grief.
Let someone else take care of you today. It's normal and natural to need help with the activities of daily living in the early days and weeks after a traumatic experience.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GRIEF AND MOURNING
"He that conceals his grief finds no remedy for it."
— Turkish Proverb
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we experience after a significant loss. Grief is what we feel on the inside.
Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. This includes the expression of any traumatic thoughts and feelings we might have.
Everyone grieves after a traumatic experience, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn.
Many of the ideas in this book are intended to help you mourn your pain, to express your feelings of trauma and grief outside of yourself. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.
Remember that your grief will be uniquely shaped by the traumatic, violent nature of the natural disaster. You will need to be very self-compassionate and patient with yourself in the months and years to come. Give yourself the gift of time. While time alone doesn't heal wounds, healing does take time.
Ask yourself this: Have I been mourning since the natural disaster, or have I restricted myself to grieving? In other words, have I been expressing my thoughts and feelings, or have I kept them inside?
UNDERSTAND THAT GRIEF FOLLOWING TRAUMA CAN BE PARTICULARLY DIFFICULT
"Just as the body goes into shock after a physical trauma, so does the human psyche go into shock after the impact of a major loss."
— Anne Grant
Not only have you and your community suffered a significant loss, but the experience was sudden and violent. The traumatic nature of the disaster will likely make your grief journey especially painful.
As we've said, grief is the collection of thoughts and feelings you have on the inside after a loss. This includes the thoughts and feelings you have about the day(s) of the disaster itself. Because the disaster was sudden and violent, this aspect of your grief may consume most of your energies, especially in the early weeks and months following the disaster.
Even much later, after you've come to terms with the experience itself, it will always be a significant part of your grief.
Remember that just as your feelings of grief need to be expressed, so do your feelings of trauma. Your trauma is part of your grief and also needs to be mourned.
Keep in mind that "healing" your trauma loss and "curing" your trauma loss are two different concepts. Healing is an active emotional and spiritual process in which you seek to be whole again. Curing is a medical term that implies that someone or something outside of you rids you of your grief. Your grief cannot be "cured"; it will always live inside you.
Find a trusted friend with whom to discuss the difference between "healing" and "curing."
ALLOW FOR NUMBNESS
"Whenever an earthquake or tsunami takes thousands of innocent lives, a shocked world talks of little else."
— Anne M. Mulcahy
Feelings of shock, numbness, and disbelief are nature's way of temporarily protecting us from the full reality of a sudden, violent experience. They help us survive our early grief.
We often think, "I will wake up and this will not have happened." Mourning can feel like being in a dream.
Your emotions need time to catch up with what your mind has experienced or been told.
Even after you have moved beyond these initial feelings of shock and disbelief, don't be surprised if they re-emerge. Holidays, anniversaries, and other significant occasions often trigger these normal and necessary feelings.
Trauma loss often goes beyond what we consider "normal" shock. In fact, you may experience what is called "psychic numbing" — the deadening or shutting off of emotions. Your sense that "this isn't happening to me" may persist for months, sometimes even years. Don't set rigid expectations for yourself and your ability to function "normally" in the world around you.
Think of shock and numbness as a bandage that your psyche has placed over your wound. The bandage protects the wound until it has become less open and raw. Only after healing has begun and a scab forms can the bandage be removed and the wound openly exposed to the world.
If you're feeling numb, cancel any commitments that require concentration and decision-making. Allow yourself time to regroup.
CONSIDER YOURSELF IN "EMOTIONAL INTENSIVE CARE"
"When you've experienced a disaster, you'll likely be overwhelmed with everything you'll have to deal with in rebuilding your life."
— Lynn Lawrance
Something catastrophic has happened. Something assaulting to the very core of your being. Something excruciatingly painful.
Your spirit has been deeply injured. Just as your body could not recover immediately after a serious injury, neither can your psyche.
Imagine that you've suffered a severe physical injury and are in your hospital's intensive care unit. Your friends and family surround you with their presence and love. The medical staff attends to you constantly. Your body rests and recovers.
This is the kind of care you need and deserve right now. The blow you have suffered is no less devastating than this imagined physical injury. Allow others to take care of you. Ask for help. Get as much rest as possible. Take time off work. Let household chores slide. IIn the early weeks an months after the disaster, don't expect — indeed, don't try — to carry on with your normal routine.
If your home was damaged by the disaster and you have no choice but to complete insurance and/or Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) paperwork and begin the draining process of relocating and rebuilding, ask for help. Ask a friend or family member who was not affected by the disaster but who is good at administrative tasks to help you with the process.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in "emotional intensive care." Where are you? What kind of care are you receiving? From whom? Arrange a weekend or a week of the emotional and spiritual intensive care you most need.
INVENTORY YOUR LOSSES
"You really don't feel disasters like these until it hits home."
— Charles Scott
Natural disasters subject us to loss of many kinds. You may have lost your home. You may have lost some or all of your belongings. You may even have experienced the loss of someone close to you.
Yet even when your home, your belongings, and the people you know were not physically harmed, you have been emotionally and spiritually affected.
What have you lost as a result of the natural disaster? If not totally lost, what has been negatively impacted or harmed? Your job? Special places in your community? Your feeling of safety and security? Your understanding of how the world works?
Also consider not just what you have already lost but what perhaps you fear losing in the future. Are you afraid of future natural disasters and what might happen to you and those you care about? Are you anxious about future financial repercussions or other unknowns? Explore this idea as well.
Write a list of all the things that you have lost or fear losing as a result of the natural disaster. Invite someone else affected by the disaster to do the same, then share your lists over coffee and conversation.
BE AWARE OF THE RISKS
"There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds."
— Laurell K. Hamilton
For those most closely affected by the natural disaster, the psychological impact of the event can be serious and may linger for years.
Natural disasters can be so traumatic to the human psyche that people who were formerly functioning well can begin to experience significant emotional and mental health problems. This does not happen to everyone, of course, but you should be aware that people who experience natural disaster trauma up close are more likely to divorce, suffer domestic abuse, commit suicide, abuse alcohol and drugs, and have economic problems. Keep in mind that these are risks — not certainties. Don't expect these things to happen to you or those you love. Simply be aware of the possibility.
If you begin to notice such problems in yourself or others, take this as a sign that more help is needed. Don't shame yourself if this is the case. You have experienced a violent, traumatic event. Of course you need help! I am a trained therapist, but after our home burned down, I, too, needed to get support and counsel.
If you are struggling or know someone who is, make an appointment with a counselor today.
ALLOW YOURSELF A TIME OF LIMBO
"Limbo is the state where there are only questions."
— David Levithan
After a natural disaster, many families are forced to live in limbo for weeks or months. Those who are displaced from their homes must find a new place to live and, at the same time, deal with the wreckage of their former homes. After our house fire, my family was displaced for 18 months.
But even if your home was not destroyed, you have probably noticed that you and likely your whole community are feeling lost right now.
It's normal to live in limbo for a time after a traumatic loss or experience. I also call it living in "liminal space."
"Limina" is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. When you are in liminal space, you are not busily and unthinkingly going about your daily life. Neither are you living from a place of assuredness about your relationships and beliefs. Instead, you are unsettled. Both your mindless daily routine and your core beliefs have been shaken, forcing you to reconsider who you are, why you're here, and what life means.
It's uncomfortable being in liminal space, but that's where grief takes you. Without grief, you wouldn't go there. But it is only in liminal space that you can reconstruct your shattered worldview and reemerge as the transformed you that is ready to live and love fully again.
Even as you try to re-establish daily routines, you will still feel the unsettledness of liminal space after a natural disaster. Today, use a moment of your unsettledness to try something you've always wanted to try but never had the courage or opportunity to before.
Excerpted from Healing Your Grief When Disaster Strikes by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2014 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Understand what it means to be "traumatized" 5
2 First, seek safety and comfort 6
3 Understand the difference between grief and mourning 7
4 Understand that grief following trauma can be particularly difficult 8
5 Allow for numbness 9
6 Consider yourself in "emotional intensive care" 10
7 Inventory your losses 11
8 Be aware of the risks 12 9- Allow yourself a time of limbo 13
10 Stay in touch with your feelings 14
11 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #1. Acknowledge the reality of what happened 15
12 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #2. Let yourself feel the pain of your losses 16
13 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #3. Participate in memorializing what was lost 17
14 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #4. Develop a new self-identity 18
15 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #5- Search for meaning 19
16 Understand the six needs of mourning: Need #6. Receive ongoing support from others 20
17 Be aware that your grief affects your body, heart, mind, social self, and spirit 21
18 Tell your story 22
19 Listen to the stories of others 23
20 Consider humankinds stories of disaster 24
21 Re-establish a routine 25
22 Embrace the uniqueness of your grief 26
23 Don't fall victim to the cliché that time alone heals all wounds 27
24 Let go of other destructive myths about grief and mourning 28
25 Make mourning a family affair 29
26 Understand the pressure cooker phenomenon 30
27 Limit your media exposure 31
28 If you're suffering from afar… 32
29 Understand that the disaster experience may compound pre-existing griefs and struggles 33
30 Take care of your body 34
31 Be honest with the children 35
32 Draw a "grief map" 36
33 Build on internal strengths 37
34 Get help with financial stresses 38
35 Look into EMDR therapy 39
36 Attend a ceremony 40
37 Make a call for help 41
38 Guard against scams 42
39 Schedule something that gives you pleasure each and every day 43
40 Remember the rule of thirds 44
41 Take it slow 45
42 If you feel afraid, find ways to feel safer 46
43 If you feel guilt, express it 47
44 If you feel anger, express it 48
45 If you feel sadness, express it 49
46 If you feel happiness, express it 50
47 Relinquish control… 51
48 …but take control of what you can 52
49 Learn to meditate 53
50 Create a memory book or box 54
51 Learn the science 55
52 Marvel at creation 56
53 Spend healing time in nature 57
54 Connect online 58
55 Make a silk purse out of a sows ear 59
56 Save up for the next rainy day 60
57 Reassess your insurance 61
58 Leverage technology 62
59 Laugh 63
60 Cry 64
61 Practice breathing in and out 65
62 Accept that there may be no answers 66
63 Stan (or renew) a daily spiritual practice 67
64 Sleep 68
65 Reach out and touch 69
66 Go to your happy place 70
67 Live in the now 71
68 Look into support groups 72
69 Seek the support of a counselor 73
70 Don't be caught off guard by "griefbursts" 74
71 Wear or display a symbol of your grief 75
72 Watch for warning signs 76
73 Make something with your own two hands 77
74 Pray 78
75 Be aware of "grief overload" 79
76 Say no 80
77 Go somewhere different 81
78 Learn something new 82
79 Advocate for someone else 83
80 Tell someone you love them 84
81 Turn to your family 85
82 Get a massage 86
83 Organize a tree planting 87
84 Look to those who model hope and healing 88
85 Give to the cause 89
86 Volunteer 90
87 Listen to the music 91
88 Reconsider where you want to live 92
89 Simplify your life 93
90 Prepare for another disaster 94
91 Include children in planning for the future 95
92 Be mindful of anniversaries 96
93 Be patient with yourself 97
94 Count your blessings 98
95 Watch for signs of new life 99
96 Reassess your priorities 100
97 Consider the rest of your life 101
98 Understand the concept of "reconciliation" 102
99 Warch for signs of reconciliation 103
100 Strive to grow through grief 104
A Final Word 105
The Mourners Code 107