Naturally a Disaster – How to Deal with Loss after a Catastrophe

In light of Hurricane Sandy, we at EnviroTech have been dealing with the affects felt all along the East Coast, specifically in the southeastern part of New York.  We received the following with the attached message, “I have prepared this document in an effort to thank the staff at EnviroTech Enterprises, that may not know the academic aspects of the social work that they do instinctively.”  The customer is currently dealing with their insurance company after the hurricane.  Hurricane Sandy

Those who work in the industry of suffering and loss will be awed by the examples of those who are capable of demonstrating strength and resilience, but they should be prepared for those who have trouble with both.  In planning ways to help folks cope; friends, family, first responders, disaster remediation companies, insurance personnel and attorneys will want to build on strengths they encounter.  Moreover, it is important to remember the following points:

  • No one who experiences an event leading to significant loss is untouched by it.
  • Most people involved will pull together and function, but their effectiveness is diminished.
  • Reactions of loss and grief are “normal responses to an abnormal situation.”
  • Those experiencing loss respond to active, genuine, interest and concern.
  • Initially, disaster mental health assistance is often more practical than psychological
    (listening, encouraging, reassuring, comforting).  “The act of providing help to others
    during times may be beneficial to the provider, as well as, the recipient). It is empowering to help others.”

What Can Be Done To Build Resilience?
Some ideas for building resilience include the following:

  1. Identify supportive adults including family members, friends, religious leaders and first responders to turn to, in the event of an emergency.  Help generate a list of potential people, to whom, to turn for various needs.
  2. Create positive connection opportunities for teamwork and respect that conveys a sense of belonging and contributing to something beyond the traumatized individual.
  3. Enhance positive attitudes by developing coping strategies through positive self-statements.
    1. The idea of mastery and control over an event is an important ingredient for resilience.  Use positive statements during day-to-day conversation.
  4. Explain the use of simple relaxation in the face of difficulties by mastering techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, or imagery that can be practiced during stressful tasks.
  5. Help those you work with to set realistic goals by thinking of them in terms of small steps. Help the individual understand that problems do not need to be managed all at once, but can be solved by attacking them one piece at a time. Children may need to hear this message from someone other than a parent.
  6. Help identify positive coping strategies that can be used in the face of adversity.  These may take many forms and can be used at different times.
    1. In general, active coping strategies (i.e., doing something positive to help-such as writing cards or letters, volunteering, making positive self-statements, exercising, eating well, keeping a journal, getting together with friends or family) are associated with better outcomes than avoidance or passive coping (i.e., withdrawal, self-blame, denial).
  7. Work toward helping victims increase a sense of mastery and control over the events that they must undertake.

Resilience has been described as a phenomenon whereby individuals show positive adaptation in spite of significant life adversities.  It is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially those that are highly stressful or traumatic. Resilience is an interactive product of beliefs, attitudes, approaches, behaviors, and, perhaps, physiology, that help individuals to fare better during adversity and recover more quickly following it. Resilient individuals bend rather than break during stressful conditions, and they return to their previous level of psychological and social functioning following misfortune.  Being resilient does not mean that one does not experience difficulty or distress or that life’s major hardships are not difficult, long lasting and upsetting. Rather, it means that these events, although difficult and upsetting, are ultimately able to be overcome.

The Subway during Hurricane Sandy
Facilitating and Fostering Social Ties and Resources
People seek out others for solace and support during difficult times. Identifying and utilizing these resources are important for resiliency. Social support is critical to managing stress. Caring and supportive relationships can provide emotional support that may buffer the impact of acutely
stressful situations or crises and allow for expression of difficult emotions. Supportive social
networks also can provide assistance and information relevant to managing traumatic stressors.

Family and close friends represent primary sources of support.  Research supports the importance of:

  1. Support from family members
  2. Support from close friends
  3. Reaffirming ties to such institutions as social and religious groups.

What Works
Caring adults can help individuals cope with stressful events and build resilience in several ways.

  • Provide opportunities within the normal business of the day to allow the individual to share their feelings and concerns. This usually allows the individual to address concerns and for you to provide reassurance about their safety.
  • Encourage to the highest degree possible the resumption of normal roles and routines or the development of new routines. Most people feel safe and secure when their activities are predictable and not always focused on the negative events.
  • Encourage and maintain social connections. Adult and youth friendships and social activities are important for normalizing lives and promoting good adjustment.
  • Where possible, reduce the exposure to upsetting images of disasters by eliminating the need to be present on site, by viewing media coverage or discussing item by item lists of what was lost.   Where such activities are necessary children should be encourage to participate in alternative activities (e.g., reading, athletic activities, games or visits with friends).
  • Encourage children and teens to stay healthy and fit by eating well and getting regular
    exercise and proper sleep. Maintaining good health is important for coping with stress.
  • Encourage parents and adolescents to use and model positive strategies for coping with stressors.

What Doesn’t Work

  • Avoiding discussions of distressing events. Parents and other caring adults may think that
    children are not bothered by events or that discussions of events will be upsetting to them; however, this may lead to missed opportunities for sharing and support.
  • Pressuring those who need time to talk. Create a positive, receptive atmosphere for discussions, and allow non-joiners to bring issues up, as they choose. Occasional direct questions about how a child is doing will communicate to the child that the parent or adult is interested.  Some traumas are so significant that they lead to grief reactions.

Stages of Grieving

Grieving disrupts a person’s normal functioning. But it need not be a long lasting problem
and “working” through grief can help restore emotional health. Although the stages of grief
may not occur in order, they have been described as follows:

  • Shock – usually the first reaction often experienced is numbness or physical pain and withdrawal.
  • Denial – acting as if no loss has occurred
  • Depression – feeling pain, despair, emptiness – may not be accompanied by some emotional release such as crying (if the person can cry, it helps release stress)
  • Guilt – self-blame for not having expressed more caring or belief the loss was his/her fault
  • Anxiety – panic reactions as reality sets in
  • Aggression – toward those who might have prevented the loss and sometimes toward the
    lost object (may have trouble acknowledging anger toward the object of loss, but if such
    anger can be expressed, it can help with recovery)
  • Reintegration – loss is accepted (although there may be periods of relapse)
    • Take steps to enhance a supportive home environment
    • Reduce existing stressors on everyone who is affected.
    • Address the problems of and general strategies designed to strengthen existing family and peer supports.
    • Identify and respond to individuals through mobilizing specific families and friends.
    • As necessary, refer individuals for specific assistance with respect to community resources for help with language, cultural differences, disabilities
    • Be prepared to identify and assist bereaved individuals.
    • Delayed reactions can surface months after the incident.

Helping Deal with Loss

Coping with Loss

Individuals experiencing loss and grieving need to think about and express their loss. To this end, all who desire to help need to be prepared to:

  1. Recognize
  2. the loss and encourage individuals to talk about what about what happened and how they are feeling. (“Tell me what happened.” “I’m so sorry”)
  3. Allow individuals to express their reactions and be prepared to validate the variety of    emotions that will merge in relation to each stage of grieving. Offer time for the individual to share their feelings. When working with a family, validate the feelings expressed, even if they seem harsh. (Those feeling victimized will express anger, fear, guilt, and so forth.  Sometimes, they will even indicate relief that what happened to someone else didn’t happen to them.  Others may find it hard to express anything.) Responses should be warm and understanding.
  4. Be prepared to answer questions directly and sensitively. Relate the facts of an event to
    the degree that you can. In discussing death, recognize its finality.
  5. In the situation where a student is returning to school after experiencing severe loss, help others know the importance of notifying the school so that they are aware of the students
    needs so that classmates have been prepared with respect to what to say and how to act. It is critical that they welcome the student and not shy away (“Glad you’re here.” “When you feel like it, let’s talk about it.”).
  6. Don’t forget to take care of yourself i.e. rest, do something disassociated with your role at work after you leave work, and where possible reconnect with your own family at least by phone.

Helping the Bereaved 

Those that have experienced a loss sometimes don’t want to go to work or school anymore. There are many reasons for this. Crisis response planning should address what to do to maximize return to normality after a loss.

  1. Outreach. A visit with the family to provide them with step-by-step plan of your work can be helpful. You are not a social worker.  Your contact with the family is for the specific purpose for which you are employed, but in explaining your job and how that job helps them, you are reassuring them, of your desire to help.  That is a great relief .
  2. In extreme cases the need for support and accommodations must be holistic.  Employers, schools and the greater family need to be aware of the occurrence and encouraged to provide accommodations until readjust to normality can be reached.  Professional counselors may be needed to understand grief reactions and to support adults and students having trouble focusing.
  3. Most of those you will meet need honest answers to questions, an opportunity to work through the grief and lots of good support.

Hurricane Sandy