Our country has recently been devastated by one natural disaster after another, including hurricanes, floods, wildfires and major earthquakes just to the south of us in Mexico. Thousands of people have lost property. Some have lost loved ones. Others have lost their jobs.
People from coast to coast have generously donated money and supplies to those affected. Such efforts will be ongoing, as survivors gradually try to rebuild, re-organize and put the pieces of their lives back together.
At the same time, there is a deeper experience that goes beyond the physical and material needs. All of those affected by the natural disasters are grieving, and that grief will not be over in a day, a month or even years to come.
Let’s look at the underlying issues of grief and what you can do to help those you know or love who were pummeled by the force of the natural disasters.
‘Allowing the Pain’ After a Natural Disaster
As a bereavement consultant, I know that the first step in a healthy grief process is honestly recognizing what is lost, accepting the reality and allowing the pain of that void. We have already seen videos and news reports depicting people grappling with the destruction of their treasured possessions, sometimes including their home and all that is familiar to them. They also struggle to come to terms with their inability to regain those items or to pay for repairs and rebuilding.
While we see outpourings of support to help with the physical rebuilding, we also need to be with survivors in non-material, non-financial ways. To greater or lesser extents depending on the impact in a particular area, survivors also need to let go of:
- Their sense of security and safety in their own homes
- Their accustomed daily routine
- Their plans for the immediate future
- Often, their visions and dreams for the long-term future they had plotted
- Their belief in established systems of aid, especially if they find their insurer won’t cover what they thought, government services are inadequate to their needs or the health care system has let them down
- Their assumptions about the way life works (i.e., thoughts that this isn’t fair or it shouldn’t happen to me)
What to Say, What Not to Say
In the midst of these profound and complex grief situations, there are six principles that can guide you on what to say or ask when you reach out to help people:
1. Listen to the story, over and over. For most, the entire situation seems unreal. One way to help others truly comprehend what happened is to talk about it, letting them repeatedly hear the words come out of their own mouths. So invite the story by asking:
- What do you remember most clearly from that day?
- What was swirling through your mind and heart as this experience unfolded?
- In what ways was this similar to your expectations and in what ways did you get blindsided?
- If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?
2. Allow the entire range of emotions, being unafraid to hear (or share in) their anger, pain, and tears. Instead of trying to cheer someone up or “fix” things, offer a good shoulder and a listening ear as you ask:
- This is really tough, isn’t it?
- You don’t mind if I shed a tear, too, do you?
- I’m trying to imagine what this is like for you. What can you tell me that would help me better imagine what you’re going through?
- What do you miss the most? What is hardest about this?
- How do you think your life will change most now?
- What memories will you carry with you for the rest of your life from before this all happened?
- There will surely be times when you feel like you’re going crazy. You’re not crazy; you’re just grieving. This is normal for a grieving person. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. You’ll get there.
3. Help them think. Encourage taking one step at a time, rather than looking at the overwhelming totality of what needs to be done. You might say:
- Now that you’ve got some of the basics and you know what you’re facing, what are your top priorities going forward? OK, what steps do you need to take to accomplish that? Let’s schedule them out, so you know where you are at each point and can see where you’re headed. We can even create a couple of overlapping schedules for different tasks, so you know nothing is falling through the cracks.
- Let’s list some of the resources that could help. I’ll start the list for you: FEMA, the local government, good friends, your religious community, your own resilience and determination. What else can you think of?
- What are all the options for accomplishing what needs to get done, even if they seem wild?
- Now that we have a whole list, are there any options we can eliminate right away? What is left? Looking at both the short-term and the long-term, why do you think that’s the best option?
4. Offer concrete help. It is not very helpful to ask, “What do you need?” Instead, depending on your location and the stage of their clean-up, offer suggestions of specific things you are willing to do, and then open it up to other possibilities:
- What do you have on your to-do list that I could do for you? Can I make some phone calls for you or fill out a form?
- Have you found yourself thinking that you wish someone was there to do a particular task? If so, what was it? Is it something I can do, or at least help you do?
- What do you need in terms of material goods? Do the kids need school supplies? Do you need clothes? Do you need food? I’ll do what I can to help get them.
- Perhaps I could help wash down walls or play with the kids so you don’t have to worry about them for a couple of hours — or would something else be better?
5. Give a sense of hope, reminding them of their strengths and what they can rely on. Say things like:
- You’ve been through tough times before. What got you through them then?
- You still have a future. It’s just going to be a very different future than you had planned.
- You’ll get there. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.
6. Don’t go away. Stay there for the long term, with words such as:
- I’m here for you. You are not alone.
- I’m going to help you get through this, no matter how long it takes.
- Even when the house is rebuilt and the furniture is in place, I know you’ll be processing this for a very long time to come. I’ll always listen.
The Bottom Line
Not every one of these suggestions will fit every situation or every person, but use them as starting points and go from there. The main principles are:
- Be there in both material and emotional ways
- Listen more than you talk
- Make yourself available for them for the long haul
Remember that when disaster strikes, those affected are thrown into the vortex of grief. But most find a way to cope. They find a way to go on and gradually heal. Yet, they never forget. Healing does not mean forgetting, nor putting a tragic experience or deceased loved one in a box marked “past” and leaving them there.
Therefore, there is never a point of final “closure.” Natural disaster survivors will never reach a day when they stop missing what they lost, when they stop wondering what life would have been like if this didn’t happen or when they no longer remember the people or life that existed before.
But this is a good thing. It means that love and memories never die, and they can carry them forever.
Help them get there. In every way you can, walk with survivors as they weather the storm that hit, and the stormy existence that follows.
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