Finding Strength to Survive a Crisis or Tragedy
Your world has fallen apart…but your life goes on. You wonder how you will ever get through the succession of joyless days you see lining the path ahead of you. You wonder how you will get through the next moment, your distress is so great. Perhaps you are facing the death of someone you love, a painful loss of a job or a home, a divorce, an injury or illness, bankruptcy, or the revelation of some shocking, unwanted news. You may feel your life has been so overturned you worry how you will survive. To whom can you turn for comfort? What re-sources can you draw upon? Are there coping strategies that you can learn? Is there any way to bypass grief and sorrow?
Working your way through.
No, there is no way to bypass grief and sorrow when tragedy strikes your life. You can gradually recover from this devastation, however, and even grow stronger in the process.
Following are some suggestions drawn from people who have survived trauma and loss, along with guidelines developed by professionals who have worked with survivors. What they have learned may help to facilitate your own healing process.
Allow yourself to grieve.
It is a myth that grieving feeds pain. You must fully experience your grief if you are to be fully healed. The purpose of grieving is to help you get to the point where you can remember without the pain. Grieving means letting yourself feel the anguish—not suppressing it. It means sharing it, talking about it, crying about it, and allowing yourself to go through the various stages that grief encompasses—which may include shock, denial, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance of the situation and moving on to the next phase of life.
If you refuse to acknowledge the extent of the disruption in your life and the resulting losses and pain, you are in a stage of denial. Observe your own patterns of denial, of escape, and also of coping. Do you lose yourself in sleep, drugs, alcohol, food, general busyness, superficial platitudes, exercise, espousing good causes, helping other people? Which are healthy coping strategies, and which do you want to let go of? Unexpressed sorrow may come out in physical symptoms, depression, or in the inhibition of other emotions such as love and joy. You cannot choose to shut down a particular segment on the continuum of your emotions without risking shutting down a much larger portion of your personality. So allow yourself to feel and to express your feelings. Painful though that may be, eventually you will come through the experience more alive, without deadening your capacity to feel.
Someone who has suffered a tragedy naturally thinks in terms of “What if…?” and “If only I’d….” Take some time to sort out the real scope of your responsibility. Make amends where you can for any lapses or mistakes, and forgive yourself when atonement is impossible. Staying stuck in guilt will only cloud the issues and block you from making wise, objective decisions.
Seek help from a friend.
One of the most basic human fears is the fear of abandonment. According to Robert L. Veninga in A Gift of Hope, “Stripped of all its other definitions, a friendship affirms that we will not be abandoned.” He goes on to say that “the first gift of friendship is companionship, which is the knowledge that one will not be abandoned. The second is a gift of hope. A good friendship affirms that good things can still take place no matter what the magnitude of the loss.”
A friend is a present you give yourself—and you need gifts when you are suffering. You need someone who will listen nonjudgmentally to your negative as well as positive feelings, someone who will patiently hear you repeat what you need to say over and over again.
Consult experts to help you care for yourself.
Take care of yourself—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Seek help from your clergy person and your faith community for a spiritual crisis or simply for emotional support. Because traumatic periods in life can be extremely physically stressful, you need to pay special attention to your health, and may want to see your doctor for a checkup. You might also want to consider psychological counseling.
Although friends and family can be wonderfully supportive, they have strong ties with you, which disqualifies them from doing therapy with you since they have an emotional stake in your life. In a relationship with a professional counselor, the focus is on you. Because the counselor is not emotionally involved, he or she can manage the counseling process in your best interest. Sessions can help you to cope better with your problem and to set goals for personal growth.
Norman Cousins describes the will to live as the “ignition system to the motor that turns on the voltage and sets the stage for progress.” Now is the time to rekindle your will and purpose by reviewing what you have in your life that has, or could have, meaning. Do you have people whom you care about deeply? Can you motivate yourself to take better care of yourself? Are you willing to examine your inner dialogue and work on turning any negative messages into more positive ones? Develop an awareness of what is healing for you. Treat yourself to walks in the woods or by the sea. Immersing yourself in the natural world can restore a sense of the beauty and power and order of creation and your unique place in it.
Shore up your faith life by exploring different approaches to prayer and meditation and read-ing inspirational writings. You will find that adversity is a gentle teacher, guiding you to a greater perspective on life and illuminating lasting values. You will learn what’s really important and will be more prone to concentrate on the spiritual and intellectual than on the passing and the petty. Though God may seem hard to reach in your present state of mind, try to be receptive to the divine presence, allowing God to reach you.
God’s love can be a powerful force in your healing, guiding your response to crisis from despair to hope. Where human efforts fall short, God will take up with you and accompany you faithfully on your journey from darkness to light.
Let go of the past.
There is a time to grieve and a time to let go. Appreciating what you have in the present depends on your ability, at some point, to relinquish the pain of the past. When reviewing your losses is no longer helpful, you need to take control of your response to the crisis. Often survivors can identify a turning point—a revelation that they can still find joy in daily life, or appreciate beauty, or be of help to others. Taking action may precipitate such a pivotal point: when you force yourself to read an article or book, go to a counselor, unburden yourself to a friend, write a thank-you note, or become assertive with your insurance company.
Staying passive fuels depression, while taking action raises your self-esteem and generates feelings of power and hope. Learn what you can from your adversity, then move on to find new purpose. If you can find meaning in your suffering, so much the better. Perhaps someday you will be able to translate your suffering into ways to help those who are going through the same trauma. The ill people who lead support groups of others suffering from the same affliction, the bereaved mothers who started MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), the crime victims who work with NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance)—these have found the ideal way of helping themselves: by helping others.
Be encouraged, for you can take control of your response to tragedy. Not all at once and not without relapses, but in time you can view crisis as an opportunity for learning and growth. You will rekindle hope and faith and move confidently into a new chapter of your life. And your new life will be especially rewarding, for you will have discovered and developed resources within yourself that you never knew existed.