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How to Overcome Grief After a Natural Disaster

Nadia TamaraEmergency Preparedness, Emotional Healing Leave a Comment

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Natural disasters are often times unpredictable. Some people will only experience them briefly over the television in the form of news. Other people, will have to fight a much harder battle as a single natural or man-made disaster can disrupt almost every part of their lives.

The other day I stumbled upon an article about the slow recovery of communities destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. One mother, and her four children, barely lived to tell their story. The water levels had reached her house so quickly, that her survival depended on whether or not she could swim across a river of debris and oil that had taken over the street. Along with her four kids, the youngest of which is 6 years old, they managed to get across, all of them covered in petroleum and other gunk. To this day, her and her kids are suffering from psychological trauma but are slowly making progress. Her youngest son, she reports, has constant flashbacks bringing him back to that terrible moment. Every time it rains he cries asking if it is going to flood again.

This article reminded me of the victims of Hurricane Irma, the Thomas Fire, and the Camp Fire, among other major natural disasters we experienced in the last few years. There are so many hurt people right now trying to recover from mass tragedy, yet there is little discussion about what the recovery process entails. Truth be told, the greater tragedy is how quickly society moves on from one headline to another, while some people continue to live in torment every day.

It may take months for a survivor to recover from a natural disaster, regardless of its magnitude, yet the effects are likely to remain forever. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is associated with war survivors, but is also commonly tied to victims of natural disasters.

How do you cope after a traumatic event?

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Natural disasters undeniably cause stress and trauma in the lives of those that are affected. Since grief is unique to each individual, working through the pain differs from person to person.

These are 10 ways to help you cope and heal from a traumatizing event.

1. Hold on to hope. Although you may not understand it yet, there’s a reason you’re a survivor. You have great potential and purpose in this world, and even if you don’t see it right in this moment, hold on to the hope that you will see better days.

2. Open up your heart to someone you trust. It’s powerful to release your emotions and not hold them in. Talking things out helps to relieve stress so that it doesn’t build up inside of you and cause your physical well-being to deteriorate. Express your needs clearly so that your loved ones can meet you where you’re at emotionally. Encourage your children to open up as well, in their time. If you don’t feel ready to talk, write your feelings in a journal.

3. Join a support group. Knowing that you’re not alone in the midst of your struggle increases feelings of comfort and peace. Meeting with a support group or therapist is beneficial for many people throughout their process of healing. Grief Net is an online support group that helps people dealing with grief, trauma, and major loss, including death.

4. Allow yourself to fully experience the emotions you’re feeling. It’s okay to be sad, to cry, to feel angry, and to not understand. Shutting off your emotions does not help you overcome them. Work through them as they come. Know that the feelings you’re experiencing are common but they don’t have to last forever.

5. Speak positivity over your life. There’s power in positive and encouraging words. Repeat them out loud until you start to believe them.

6. Allow yourself time to heal. There’s a process in healing that will take some time. Gradually work your way back into your daily routine, but don’t not rush into anything too fast.

7. Return to a healthy routine. When I say healthy, I mean eating the right foods, getting enough hours of sleep, exercising regularly, and getting a daily dose of laughter. Your mind and body work together during the recovery process, and neither one should get neglected. Do things you truly enjoy with people you love.

8. Spend time helping others. One of the best ways to overcome grief is to change your mental focus onto someone or something else. Help others and you will feel a new sense of purpose in life. If you don’t want to be around people, you could volunteer some hours at the local pet shelter.

9. Don’t cope with alcohol or drugs. When people are deeply hurt, they use drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, but it will only lead you down a destructive path. See your pain as an opportunity to come out on the other side as a whole, new, and healthy person.

10. Spend time meditating outdoors. The Earth is a mass of energy. When we walk barefoot on grass, sand, or any other conductive system, the energy of the Earth gets transferred into our body. This helps reduce inflammation and improves sleep, among other things. Spend at least 30 minutes daily in quiet meditation while touching the Earth’s surface.

The following videos are great for assisted meditations that you can practice at home.

Know the signs!

It's normal for people to feel hopeless in putting their life back together after a catastrophe. Perhaps they lost a home, a friend, a relative, or their fulfilling lifestyle. It may take a long time to make sense of a new way of living. In the meantime, the feelings of hopelessness can cause psychological stress, which is rooted in pain, loneliness and fear. If overlooked, this can lead to a lack of drive and will to live, depression, anxiety, and illogical decisions. If the root of fear is not properly dealt with, it can result in panic or anxiety attacks, when presented with a similar fearful situation. It’s necessary to recognize the effects psychological stress can have in someone’s life, as a step towards recovery. 

I know several people who process their feelings inwardly and choose to harbor their pain because they don’t know how to express themselves properly. In the long run, these accumulated feelings can extend throughout the body in the form of illness by causing chronic strain to the heart, blood vessels, and muscles.

It’s important to note that grief is personal, therefore the healing process will look different for everyone. Still, help is available and should be sought after in order to overcome the sorrowful moments.

Loss is often accompanied by:

• Denial, including: disbelief, shock, lack of emotion, detachment, withdrawn, apathy, numbness, isolation, fear, and anxiety about the future.

• Anger, including: resentment, rage, envy, guilt, regret, shame, blame, and irritability toward others and the situation itself.

• Sadness, including: depression,  mood swings, feeling hopeless, helpless, disappointed, powerless, struggling to make decisions, and experiencing random bursts of crying.

• Physical effects in the body, including: changes in sleeping and eating patterns, lethargy, muscle aches, chest pains, stomach problems, headaches, and excessive drinking/ drug use.

A few tips to help your children cope during their healing process

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It's important for parents to take notice of behavioral changes in their children after a traumatic event. Oftentimes, kids will not know how to express their emotions and will subconsciously internalize their feelings.

1. Communicate. Maintain an open dialogue with your kids to make sure they feel the freedom to express themselves. Talk with them with a simple vocabulary which they can understand. Acknowledge your kid's feelings and thoughts, assuring them that what they're experiencing is valid. Assure them that situations like these are not in their control. Encourage your kids to talk to a trusted relative, friend, pastor, therapist, or join a support group like Kids Aid which focuses on supporting grieving children. 

2. Incorporate art for healing. Some children find it difficult to open up verbally and that's okay. Find different forms of non-verbal communication by which they can learn to express themselves. Encourage them to write in a diary, relive stress by playing an instrument, or creating pieces of art.

3. Reduce the amount of time your kids spend on their phone, watching TV or playing video games. Many kids have their own mobile phones or at least access to them. Naturally, they may turn to their friends online, but that's not always the healthiest approach. Reduce social media use and encourage them to join a sport or get involved in a charitable project. Allow them to be exposed to a new environment so they don't continue to stumble upon images or videos of the traumatizing event while they're learning to cope with it. The more time they spend in the virtual world, the slower their progress might be.

4. Be vulnerable and honest. Don't minimize the severity of the problem, but help your children see that in time it will get resolved. By being honest, you are reinforcing the ability for them to know they can trust you in the future. If they're feeling overwhelmed by the situation, explain how you are coping with it so they feel secure. Kids observe everything their parents do, so showing them your ability to cope in a healthy manner will teach them to do the same. 

5. Get their minds away from the situation. Help your kids remove the focus off of themselves by volunteering to help others or traveling somewhere to get their minds off of the matter. Meditating together is also beneficial.

6. Normalize. Return to your normal routines as you're able to. Try to minimize the conversations you have about the disaster (or traumatizing event) with other adults while your children are present. If a child misunderstands what you're saying, they may develop fears and deeper roots to their anxiety. If you notice your children are experiencing signs of PTSD, have them see a professional.

Seek assistance from the disaster help line

As stated on their website: “The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a--year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.”

Although pain, fear and grief are emotions unique to every person, I believe that surviving through a crisis will give you a renewed sense of purpose. Many people experience a new destiny in life, after almost being defeated.

Let this story encourage you: A woman  was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. In a rush to accomplish all the things she had on her bucket list, she chose to open a bakery- a dream she had since she was little girl. After several months of painful chemo treatment, she miraculously recovered. Her coffee shop continued to thrive, and so did she. A situation that was set up to kill her made her strong enough to pursue something she hadn’t previously found the courage to do.

If there are survivors in the world, it’s because there is hope and the purpose of our life on Earth is being re-awakened. 

In the months following wildfires, the land recovers with fresh wild flowers and vegetation. The second time around they blossom more beautiful and stronger than the first. If that's a fact of nature, how much more truth does it hold for us?

I sincerely pray for every survivor to overcome their grief with the peace of a hopeful and restored future.

I encourage every person who reads this (even if you haven’t been personally affected by a natural disaster) to reach out to another person who may need help during their grieving process. Perhaps we are the stepping stone someone needs to reach the point of acceptance , healing, and building a bridge to their future.

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published in January 2018 and has since been improved and updated.

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