Thursday, June 2, 2011

Can We Learn Anything From Tornadoes About Resilience?

As coverage of tornadoes across the US has filled pages of newspapers and hours of newscasters’ time, I find myself speculating about the larger lessons that may lie beneath the shattered landscape left in a tornado’s wake. Issues of coping with loss, recovering from devastation and seeking support are universal in many tragedies we face over the course of our lives.

None of us invites tragedy. Sometimes it comes upon our lives slowly; other times it strikes like a bolt out of the blue. Yet when tragedy touches us or our loved ones, it may be helpful to have thought about how people salvage their lives and move forward with resilience. In reading about the recent tornadoes in the US, a few of which have caused me to retreat to a cramped crawl space in my own basement as sirens screamed in the distance, I have felt relief at being spared from the damage that people in nearby communities have experienced. Sometimes I have felt survivor’s guilt. And other times I have felt like a ghoul as I find myself riveted by news reports in the aftermath of the wreckage. So I’ve tried in my own mind to think about how I might sort out my life if it were upended by a tornado – by which I could mean a violent act of weather, but I also could mean any event that rips me from my psychological moorings.

Coping with loss: I have lived enough years by now, and counseled enough grief-stricken clients, to have more than a passing familiarity with the emotional devastation that loss can bring. Although each person handles loss differently, I have found that North American culture often communicates the expectation that people should get on with their lives after a loss. And yet, for most people, it takes time to absorb the meaning of any loss. A year after a loss, when anniversaries have passed without the loved one, most survivors will say that it has been the comfort of family and friends that has enabled them to face each day. Some also will say that a ritual following the loss or a memorial to a loved one has helped to sustain them during their time of grief. But, most of all, grieving people will say that they have needed a shoulder to lean on, someone to talk to and a chance to review the circumstances leading to the loss to try to make some sense of the tragedy. And they will feel relief if their support systems are willing to be good listeners, neither judging nor hastening them to get on with their lives. Sometimes, as in the case of chronic health problems, terminal illnesses or infertility, the impact of loss grows heavier over time; conversely, when someone dies unexpectedly or there is a pregnancy loss, it is the suddenness of this event that leaves us emotionally adrift. So, whether for ourselves or loved ones, it is important to respect the unique pace each person needs in the process of healing, as well as the importance of support during the months and years that follow.

Recovering from devastation: At the memorial service of a friend a few years ago, one eulogy mentioned the decreased person’s frequent proclamation that “It’s just ‘stuff’”! As this friend had coped with his terminal illness, he was reminding others around him about what mattered, and it wasn’t the material possessions they were fussing over. We hear of tornado survivors who celebrate that they are alive and that their friends are alive, while proclaiming that life is what matters most as they contemplate rebuilding their lives. In watching coverage of families who have lost their homes, their scrapbooks, and their treasures of a lifetime, only to reclaim shreds of their possessions, I find myself wondering about what I value in my life and how I would tolerate the loss of a valued object. With this tornado mindset, I have donated many bags of clothing to charity, tried to simplify my life so I am able to spend time doing what brings me joy, and remained thankful daily that life in the moment is worth celebrating. I would hope that if/when devastation strikes, I could separate “stuff” from substance, lean on loved ones, and fortify whatever resilience I could muster in the wake of any personal storm.

Seeking support: In both of the earlier paragraphs I have emphasized the importance of leaning on others, even in a society that expects we should be able to bounce back quickly from catastrophes. And, since these catastrophes may very well have touched the lives of loved ones, I have found that it is wise to maintain relationships with a diverse network of caring people. Whether professionals (clergy, therapists, health care professionals), friends, mentors, neighbors, co-workers or distant folks who care about you, it is important to stay in touch or to extend emotional support when needed, in part because you may need to ask for such support in return some day. Not all folks will be available or emotionally able to connect with us on every issue, so it pays to think over the months and years about which people we feel most ready to confide in on which issues. As life changes, we change. But remembering to stay in touch with caring people of all ages is one way of being able to be responsive to their requests for help, as well as to call on them when your own life’s storms are just too much.

In writing today’s blog, I hope I am striking a responsive chord in some readers who, like me, are aware that, actually or figuratively, tornadoes can appear without warning on the horizon. If they strike, hopefully we can feel empowered to honor our emotions, to rebuild our lives and to seek support of various dimensions from the caring and concerned people in our lives.

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