11 Things To Remember When Coping With Tragedy
It’s usually somebody else’s life that’s been turned inside out. Somebody we hear or read about—or see in graphic images on TV standing in the floodwaters of a hurricane, the rubble of an earthquake, the ashes of a fire, or the aftermath of terrorism. We identify with their shock, heartbreak, and profound confusion about how to move forward. Their lives as they knew them have been lost. Forever. The rugs have been pulled out from under them, and they find themselves on new and unfamiliar paths, starting over.
But sometimes the roles are reversed. We’re the ones people are watching on the news or reading about. A tragedy or loss of some kind has befallen us or those we love. And we’re reeling, gasping for air, and grieving the unspeakable losses that happen to other people. But as the shock begins to wear off, we slowly begin to realize that it is our turn "in the soup."
Having personally experienced a rude awakening of this magnitude and having helped countless others in the aftermath of almost every kind of tragedy, including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, I’ve discovered a few things that have helped other people keep moving. Use the suggestions that apply to you, without any pressure to accept what doesn't. And, in fact, let that dictate the way you receive all the advice, solicitous questions, and other gestures of kindness you'll receive during this time. Hold on to what helps you get through the day, and let the rest go.
1. Pace yourself.
You’re probably in survival mode, and you may still be in a state of shock. If your mind is racing to connect all the dots and make sense of what has happened, if you’re having trouble focusing and are on that oft-mentioned emotional roller coaster, you may also be traumatized. So, slow down. And breathe.
2. Take breaks and come up for air.
Shut it down and rest. Or go for a walk. When things don’t always make sense, it can be exhausting. The human mind is like a computer in search mode, replaying what we’ve been through and uncovering every possible scenario for undoing what cannot be undone.
3. Be patient with yourself.
You’re probably feeling overwhelmed. You might be flooded with emotions one minute and numb the next. This is perfectly normal. Your system is trying to come to terms with the magnitude of what's happening, so be patient with yourself. Healing is a gradual process. What happened is likely to feel surreal yet also all too real. Your system is trying to reconcile the fact that you’ve really endured this trauma. As difficult as it is to believe and accept, and as much as you might want to deny what has occurred and change the channel, you must begin to slowly face reality.
4. Forgive yourself for not being able to control the situation.
No matter how smart, resourceful, loving, faithful, organized, or pious you may be, you don’t get to control this. No matter how meticulous you’ve been throughout your lifetime, life has its own terms, and certain things are just not in your control. Surrendering to—rather than wrestling with and resisting—the situation may give you some measure of peace.
5. Practice self-care and self-compassion.
Take one breath, one day, one step forward at a time. It’s possible you’ve never had to show yourself more patience, support, encouragement, kindness, gentleness, empathy, and understanding than right now. Your body, mind, and spirit will welcome a daily regimen of replenishing exercise, nourishing food, rest, and relaxation.
6. Release all self-criticism.
Pressuring and rushing yourself, blaming, shaming, judging, and/or persecuting yourself only prolongs the suffering. If you’re harshly self-critical, find people to keep you accountable or reminders to be gentle with yourself as you process this pain.
7. Give constructive expression to your anger, sorrow, "lost-ness," and grief.
Your emotions are there to express, not to hide, deny, or repress. Air them out in healthy and constructive ways with trusted confidants and counselors, through journaling or painting. Clearing the air will open the door to healing and renewal.
8. Surround yourself with supportive individuals.
None of us gets through hard times alone. The love, care, and support of others can make all the difference. And this is the time to let these people in. Don’t let false pride, shame, or fear of indebtedness stand in your way.
9. Keep the faith.
It’s time for you to summon the strength and courage you’ll need to face each new day. And rebuild. Your heart may be broken, and certain people and events that you cherished may be gone, but this is a moment of truth. The wind may have gone out of your sails, and you may be so heartsick that you consider throwing in the towel. Your resilient spirit may be searching for the faith, trust, courage, and strength to rise out of these ashes. But take it from someone who knows: It is within you to rise up. And there is joy and meaning on the other side of this. You just have to get through the rubble in order to get there.
10. Don't give yourself a timeline for healing.
There is a future unfolding and a broken heart that is slowly healing. Writing new chapters of life after a devastating loss requires great courage and faith. The path forward is one of honor. Fighting your way back into life is a process. And you are a work in progress. There will be good days. And bad ones. Accepting that is a crucial step in beginning to move forward.
11. Be grateful to yourself for having made this journey.
Going from feeling completely lost, broken, humiliated, and destroyed to where you are now is a powerful statement about who you are. Showing yourself respect and appreciation—and accepting it from others—is a really good thing.
The journey we make back onto solid ground after having the rug pulled out from under us is one that has defined human history. Life is life. There will be tragedies and setbacks in all of our lives. Fighting our way back into life, one breath at a time; knowing when to surrender; practicing self-care and compassion; and summoning the strength and courage to go on and keeping the faith that there will be a better day lead us out of the soup. We become the better version of ourselves, slowly begin to turn the page on our losses, write new chapters of life, and make new memories.
Ken Druck, Ph.D. is a California-based, award-winning mental health expert. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Fielding Graduate University, and has authored several books, including Courageous Aging: Your Best Years Ever, Reimagined and The Real Rules of Life: Balancing Life’s Terms with Your Own. Druck has been featured in CNN, Huff Post and the New York Times.