When a disaster occurs loss of life can be particularly devastating and traumatizing to individuals, organizations and businesses alike. There can be several different types of disasters creating these disruptive situations. Some disasters are acts of nature or stem from natural causes – like a hurricane or earthquake, while others are intentional acts. Although some may be more sudden and unexpected, any loss that takes place as a result of a disaster may cause grief and mourning and may result in family, friends and co-workers offering support and condolences.

Disasters do not respect the personal status, financial clout or academic accomplishments of its victims. The impact of the tragedy reaches across ethnic, racial and social boundaries. All are touched, upset by the death and destruction left in its wake. Recovering from disaster may not only include the grieving of the loss of life, but also the rebuilding of homes, the replacing of possessions, and the disruption of business or employment.

Disasters can alter the lives of those in a single home or neighborhood. They can affect the business world at a retail outlet, a manufacturing plant or a warehouse. A disaster can impact large arenas or stadiums where people gather. They can disturb the lives of entire communities or even a nation.

Beyond the immediate impact of the people in the disaster, such events transform the lives of their friends and family for miles and for generations. The events surrounding the disaster leave friends, family and colleagues wondering, “Why did this happen?” “How can I cope?” and “Are my feelings normal?”

Natural reactions to disaster

Those surviving a disaster may have a wide variety of feelings and emotions because of the events. It would be very common to experience disrupted thoughts and feelings for several weeks or months after the disaster. Some normal reactions could include:

  • People who survive a disaster may have a hard time focusing on normal activities for quite some time. Returning to anything routine may cause a resurgence of the feelings of fear and hopelessness.
  • Many individuals experience a lack of appetite. Dramatic weight-loss can be another result. If this persists, the person will have less energy and strength to cope with the daily activities of returning to normal routines.
  • Most people who have survived disasters find they have the lack of restful sleep for days following the event. Vivid dreams replay when they rest, waking them violently from their sleep. Such turmoil often causes the individual to try to avoid falling asleep. The lack of sleep can cause physical harm and keep the person from handling daily activities.
  • It is also quite common for survivors of disaster to experience real physical ailments such as headaches or nausea.
  • Psychological reactions to disaster can range the gamut of emotions, but can include feelings of guilt, anger, fear, or anxiety.
  • Because of the amount of turmoil and trauma, it is common for the survivor to have dramatic mood swings or changes in emotional stability. If these swings persist, the person should seek the advice and counsel of medical professionals.

Ways to cope with the stress and pain caused by the disaster

Allow yourself the opportunity to talk about your feelings and the disaster itself. Finding a trusted individual to talk with will be crucial to the healing process. If the stress and pain persists, the advice of a professional counselor may be needed to assist and guide the individual to healing.

  • Take care of the physical body by eating regularly, maintaining a diet of healthy food choices. Carve out time to have physical exercise. Try to get plenty of rest. During these times of stress, the body almost always needs more sleep than normal.
  • Allow yourself to acknowledge the emotions as they arise. Do not try to hide the feelings or disguise them.
  • Volunteer to help others who are in need because of the events of the disaster. Serving others will take the focus away from yourself and will give the feeling that you are assisting in recovering from the tragedy.
  • Find ways to express your feelings through creativity, like journaling, music or art. Your sincere expressions of your struggles may be the key that helps someone else recover.

Things that you can do to support others who are hurting

When disaster strikes neighborhoods or larger areas, there are things that the entire neighborhood can do to encourage those who have lost loved ones. Simple things like attending the visitation or funeral together, sending flowers or gifts, or bringing food can assure the grieving family that they are cared for.

Some people in the area may only be casual acquaintances. Surviving disasters can bond casual friends into intimate, lasting friendships. The attendance at a visitation or a hand-written note can express compassion and assure the family that you empathize with what they are feeling.

Close friends in the neighborhood can play a significant role in the process of healing from grief and returning to a more normal lifestyle. Practical things like caring for the physical needs of the home, bringing food, or taking care of a pet can be meaningful ways to show that the grieving family is cared for and loved.