How to Cope With Grief Following a Disaster

 How to Cope With Grief Following a Disaster

The problem with many major disasters is that there are usually fewer resources available to us during the initial aftermath that can help us to overcome the grief and the trauma. This means that many people have to look to their own resources and try to get support from those such as family and friends to help them through.

Everybody experiences grief in different ways and how you personally grieve depends on many things such as your personality, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you. And it isn’t just about the loss of our belongings but also the loss of security and sense of stability.

Grief is a very personal reaction to the kinds of traumatic, life-altering events made worse by feeling like we have no control over anything in our lives. It can’t be dealt with overnight, it takes time. Some people may start to feel better within a matter a weeks whereas for others, the process can take years.

I hope that in some way, this article can help you to find hope and gain a better understanding of the feelings of loss and grief.

The Five Stages of Grief

The ‘Five Stages of Grief’ was a theory that was developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, published in her in her 1969 book On Death and Dying which suggests that we go through five distinct stages of grief. Those stages being:

  1. Denial – “This can’t be happening
  2. Anger – “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
  3. Bargaining – “Make this not happen, and in return I will _____
  4. Depression – “I’m too sad to do anything
  5. Acceptance – “I’m at peace with what happened

It is important to understand that not everyone that experiences grief will go through every one of those five stages and that is perfectly fine as you don’t have to go through them all in order to heal. If you do go through them all then you probably won’t go through them in sequential order so don’t think about how you think that you should be feeling at different stages.

Kübler-Ross summed it up perfectly in her final book before her death in 2004 when she said that the five stages of grief:

Were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.Kübler-Ross

Let us now take a look at the five stages of grief mentioned above in a little more detail.

1. Denial

In many cases, the first stage that we may go through is that of denial. We deny the reality of what is happening. We hide from the facts and the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. It doesn’t make sense. We may start to wonder how we can go on after the loss and even why we should go on.

Believe it or not, denial actually helps to make our survival possible. It helps us to pace our feelings. As you begin to accept the reality and start asking yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.

2. Anger

As those feelings that you were initially denying begin to surface, the intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. This anger may be aimed at anything or anybody. Reality tells us that those are not to blame but emotionally we may feel very different. We may even start to feel guilty for being angry but that can make the anger even worse. The fact is, the more that you feel your anger, the more that those feelings will begin to dissipate and the quicker you will heal. Underneath this anger is pain, your pain. We shouldn’t fear anger, we should use it as an anchor

3. Bargaining

This is the stage where all of your “If only…” statements will start to appear. It is where you try to bargain, even with God. This stage is often accompanied with guilt and we start to believe that there was something that we could have/should have done differently.

If during a disaster your loved one becomes extremely hurt and we know that there is a slim chance that they will pull through we may start trying to bargain with statements such as, “Please God, I will do this or that if you will just let them live.” All we want is for life to be back as it was before. These “if only…” statements make us find fault in ourselves.

4. Depression

When it comes to mourning there are actually two different types of depression that are associated. These are:

  1. Sadness/Regret – reaction to practical implications relating to the loss.
  2. Quiet preparation – the second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.

Empty feelings will begin to present themselves and our grief will move on to a deeper level. This stage can often feel like it will never end. You must understand however, that this depression is the appropriate response to a loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.

5. Acceptance

Some people who experience grief sadly never make it to the stage of acceptance. This doesn’t mean that you are “all right” with what has happened because most people will never feel all right about some situations or disasters that they may face. This stage is about accepting what has happened and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We may not like the new reality but in time we will accept it. We learn to live with it.

Emotional and Physical Symptoms of Grief

When people are experiencing grief, many of them will experience the following symptoms:

Emotional Symptoms of Grief

  • Shock and disbelief – Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened.
  • Sadness – This is most probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief.
  • Guilt – You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do.
  • Anger – Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.
  • Fear – A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. You may even have panic attacks.

Physical symptoms of grief

We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Lowered immunity
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia

Common Misconceptions About Grief

Because grief is often not talked about, it gives rise to a lot of misconceptions and confusion as to what the feeling of grief actually is. Let’s take a look at some of the most common misconceptions about grief and clear them up for you.

1. “Grief is the same as depression.”

In many cases people may experience both depression and grief at the same time but they are not the same thing. Depression, as an illness, is chronic, cyclical, and diagnosed based on intensity, severity and duration. Just because somebody is experiencing grief, it does not mean that they are depressed.

2. “You’re better off keeping it to yourself.”

Maybe we don’t want to burden other people with our thoughts and feelings and it becomes easy to believe that no one wants to hear about grief but in reality, if you push others away and not talking about it, it only perpetuates the idea that grief is taboo. 

3. “The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.”

If you try to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing, it will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

4. “Always remain strong.”

If you have suffered a major loss, feelings of sadness, being frightened, or loneliness are normal. You are not weak if you cry and you don’t need to put a brave face on for everybody. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

5. “If you don’t cry, you’re not sorry.”

Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.

6. “Moving on means that you have forgotten.”

Moving on means you’ve accepted your loss—but that’s not the same as forgetting. You can move on with your life and keep the memory of someone or something you lost as an important part of you. In fact, as we move through life, these memories can become more and more integral to defining the people we are.

Seeking Support for Grief

While we may automatically want to withdraw from those around us when we are dealing with grief, it is important that we have that face-to-face support of other people as it is vital to our healing. Comfort can also come from just being around others who care about you. The key is not to isolate yourself.

Your friends and family members. You have people around you that care about you and now is the time to lean on those people for support. Don’t avoid them, draw them closer, spend time together and accept the help that they offer. Don’t be afraid to tell people what you need even if it is just the company as sometimes even though they want to help, they won’t know how.

Accept that many people feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who’s grieving. Grief can be a confusing, sometimes frightening emotion for many people, especially if they haven’t experienced a similar loss themselves. They may feel unsure about how to comfort you and end up saying or doing the wrong things. But don’t use that as an excuse to retreat into your shell and avoid social contact. If a friend or loved one reaches out to you, it’s because they care.

Join a support group. Even when we have loved ones around us, it can still feel incredibly lonely. If you can find others that have experienced the same thing that you are going through it can be a great help to your recovery.

Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If your grief feels like too much to bear, find a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.

It is important that when you grieve, you also make sure that you look after yourself. If you fail to do this you will soon deplete your energy and emotional reserves. You can take care of yourself in a number of ways, such as:

Facing your feelings. While you may be able to suppress your grief for a little while, you can’t avoid it forever. You need to acknowledge the pain that you are feeling.

Express your feelings. It is up to you how you choose to express your feelings but try to do it in a creative way. You could:

  1. Start a journal
  2. If your grief is because you have lost someone close to you, write a letter saying things that you never got the chance to say while they were here.
  3. Make a scrapbook or photo album.

Keep at your hobbies. Routine can bring comfort during hard times.

Don’t let others tell you how you should be feeling. No one can tell you when you should move on. Don’t allow yourself to feel embarrassed or judged. If you are angry, it’s OK to shout at the heavens. If you want to cry, then cry. You’re also allowed to laugh and find joy in things.

Plan for triggers. There will be certain triggers that come up such as birthdays or anniversaries of the event. Be prepared for the feelings that will come and understand that it is normal.

Don’t forget about your physical health. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating correctly, and exercising. All these things can help us to better cope emotionally.

When Should You Seek Professional Help?

If you believe that your grief has turned into depression, talk to a mental health professional. If you don’t, depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. Don’t feel ashamed about how you feel, treatment can help you get better. You should contact a professional if you experience any of the following:

  • You feel like life is no longer worth living.
  • You start to wish that you had died in the event.
  • You blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it.
  • You start to feel disconnected from others for more than a few weeks.
  • You can no longer perform your normal daily activities.

Sources: Psychcentral,, Very Well Mind

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