How to Cope with Tragedy

Dealing with Tragedy

Reading Time: 6 minutes

How to cope with tragedy wasn’t in the psyche of those who lived through h urricane Ian as they sat in the initial shock. Yet comforting one another was the only way to cope, for many had lost everything.

Hurricane Ian

The residents of Florida awoke to a neighbourhood they didn’t recognize and struggled to comprehend the enormity of what had happened to their community. Living through the storm was a terrifying experience of gigantic proportions, but now they had to deal with a chaotic ‘moonscape’.

Florida was a place where people moved to live in the sun, with the hope of a better way of life. Away from cold weather, the pressure of living in a city, the threat of tornadoes and fires and other pressures of life, only to walk into the jaws of a hurricane that was devastating history-in-the-making.

The Shock and Coping with Tragedy

Ian was a category-four, slow-moving storm, with a spread of 30 miles wide, with winds affecting an area of 140 miles. It was accompanied by a massive storm surge, of the most deadly and destructive force. Tragedy shocks in a way that is unbelievable. As people try to navigate their way through the hurricane of emotions, they ask, “How do I survive this kind of tragedy and come out the other side sane?”

In its own way, the initial shock is a blessing because the mind goes numb, as it is flooded with neurochemicals and hormones, dancing in a confused rhumba in the brain. Confusion and utter disbelief are the major emotions, as the brain struggles to process what has happened.

A similar thing happens when the body receives a major injury. Initially, the body reacts with numbness as the shattered nerves have no response to the adrenalin that washes through the body in stress-induced analgesia. The body is on total overload physiologically, psychologically, and above all, emotionally.

There is also the denial, “This can’t be happening to me. It’s a nightmare and I’ll wake up soon!”

Collective Grief

In hurricane Ian people found themselves in the midst of collective grief. The world had just witnessed the effect of collective grief when over a quarter-of-a-million people spent long hours waiting to pass by Queen Elizabeth’s coffin. That collective grief paled into insignificance following hurricane Ian. The only thing people could do was to wrap their arms around each other in collective empathy.

They had woken to find their entire way of life had disappeared in one long night of destruction. Their emotions ran on a roller-coaster-ride as they were still alive, but neighbours had not made it.

The heart-wrenching devastation filled people with fears for a disembodied future. Everyone was reacting individually. It was just the beginning of a pot-holed journey of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

Benefits of Collective Grief

Collective grief draws people together, as they share their anger, grief and fears, in an attempt to come to terms with what cannot be changed. In collective grief they often find others who are worse off than they are and end up comforting them, which helps ease their own pain. I think it was an old Indian sage who said, “I thought I had a problem because I had no shoes, until I saw the person who had no feet.”

Collective grief has another hidden benefit. People in a devastated community are drawn together in their mourning, which helps re-establish the community’s relationships. Life will never be the same and there will always be the memory of ‘before’ and ‘after’, for tragedy changes everything for ever. The victims are forced to face a new reality as what is the norm, for what was, is irreconcilably gone.

Hurricane Ian was no respecter of persons, for tragedy is the great equalizer. Florida is a community of widely diverse economic circumstances. Rich and poor were equally devastated, the only difference being the matter of insurance and the financial ability to re-construct a life. Rebuilding Florida is a long-term issue and Florida will be reborn with a new face. Tragedy leaves people changed for ever and leaves them with the enigma of how to cope with the grief of tragedy.

Individual Reactions

People react differently to tragedy. A friend of ours was killed in an accident and we had gone to help the family. I went into the bedroom to comfort the nine-year-old son. He stood on the bed screaming, “Who is going to get my dad’s money?” He knew his father wasn’t coming home again, but this was not the reaction you would expect in one so young. Little did I know that within a week I would be in the same position trying to comfort my own children.

People have the right to grieve in their own way and should not be censored if they do not do what others expect of them. Sincere empathy is often the only thing we can offer.

Two days after my husband’s accident I desperately needed to walk the beach alone. Understandingly my immediate family wanted to take my car keys off me. I will always be grateful to a neighbour who said he would accompany me. Not only that, he sat on the sand and read a newspaper and let me walk alone. I don’t know if I would have had his kind of courage, had it been me watching on. But that walk was essential for me, if I was to start the long journey back to ‘sanity’.

Hidden Grief

Personal grief is one of the loneliest places in the world. We may grimace as we hear a child let go with an ear-piercing bellow of grief, over a real or imagined affront to their person. As we grow and mature, we learn to control the natural outpouring of grief. We hold our emotions in and lose the ability to release them. We hide our tears from those around us, often to our own detriment.

In some cultures they have retained the custom of keening a loss. That makes more sense than the stiff-upper-lipped custom of Western nations.

When one of my daughters was killed, I had difficulty openly revealing the depth of my loss, for a variety of reasons. I am still uneasy sharing it many years later, as grief is very personal. The deeper the loss the harder it is to bring it into the open.

The Scars Remain

Long after the event is over, the scars remain. Tragedy is like driving a nail into a piece of wood. You can remove the nail, but you can’t remove the hole it leaves behind. You can fill it, but the scar remains.

You can’t tuck tragedy away in your mind, like shutting a door on the loss and walk on, without some, often long term, consequences. Shared tears and shock, contain their own kind of healing properties. Looking back, I feel I failed in helping other members of my family and was not a good example in my own stoicism. People need to weep together to share their heart-wrenching devastation and fears and let true healing begin.

People have censored Queen Elizabeth in that she was distant to her children. However, consider all the other pressures she was under, when as a young queen she lost her beloved father and had to take the throne. Unless you can walk in another person’s shoes, you cannot fully understand what they have to cope with and why they react the way they do.

How to Cope With Tragedy

How to cope with tragedy is not a two-minute fix, as acceptance has to grow. The first step is to acknowledge the depth of your own grief and don’t be too hard on yourself. “Grieving is a process of reconstructing a world that has been challenged by loss.”

The grieving person can only take one day at a time, as he, or she, begins the slow and painful journey of coming to terms with a totally different norm. The one thing you cannot do, is to remain at the ‘grave’. You have no choice but to move on.

Time will bring healing and the waves of grief will subside, but the journey will differ vastly from person to person. The victims of tragedy may need to be supported for weeks, months and even years. With kindness, mindfulness, and the right support, people can heal.

Human beings are amazingly resilient. They do work their way past tragedy and loss. They can come out the other side stronger than ever. We all face tragedy in this life: one way or another. When tragedy hits others, it reminds you that you have survived your own life-changing situations.

Moving On

To live is to know death, destruction and survival. You can come out the other side of tragedy a stronger and better person, if you do not let bitterness and self-pity take hold with their invasive and destructive root.

One woman who lived through a communal tragedy said, “If we learn nothing else from tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate and resentment.” Another person said, “Grief not only changes you, it reveals you.”

Life, following any type of tragedy, requires gaining a new set of coping tools. How to cope with tragedy has strategies that work for one person but may not work for another.

The important thing is to reach out for help and be ready to comfort those around you. Healing will come, but it will be long and slow and, in some cases people never completely heal. Don’t judge them if they can’t move on the way you think they should.

Human Resilience

Humans have an incredible resilience and can build a new life following a life-changing tragedy. Learn to have empathy and say a prayer for those who are traumatised. They have a voice that needs to be heard. “There, but for the grace of God go I.”

Tomorrow is a new day and this too will pass. Face it with a smile and comfort others, and above all, know that you are not on your own. I would love to hear from you and share your healing process.

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    Wendy is an Inspirational Freelance Writer specializing in offering encouragement to women in all walks of life.

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