Grief in the aftermath of a superstorm

A home lost when Sandy hit the Northeast. AP photo.

Since 1975, natural disasters increased by 430%. Yet percentages mean little to those whose homes, communities, and livelihoods crumbled as Hurricane Sandy collided with the Atlantic Seaboard. Thank goodness for the volunteers, places of worship, civic-minded organizations, and professionals who plan for the unthinkable, and are there when shock and disaster overwhelm the capacity to take care of oneself and loved ones.

Hurricane Katrina showed the importance of well-planned disaster relief efforts, including how the lack of appropriate services contributes to long-term, unresolved grief—or complicated grief as it is increasingly called. Destruction of communal support systems causes some of the greatest obstacles to both mourning losses and beginning restoration efforts. Most social groups are inherently equipped with ways to heal the traumas that impact their communities. Optimally, initial efforts in disaster relief prioritize restoring communal ties.

Complicated grief shares characteristics with posttraumatic stress. Signs of complicated (traumatic) grief include preoccupation with what has been lost, or alternatively avoidance of reminders, as well as suffering from intrusive thoughts or images. Although it may seem too soon to worry about who will and who won’t have a difficult time getting over this disaster, when grief isn’t worked through, it too can be devastating. Mental illness and complicated grief go hand-in-hand. One study of psychiatric inpatients in a California facility found 77% suffered from complicated grief. The psychologist and attachment theorist John Bowlby claimed, “much psychiatric illness is an expression of pathological mourning.”

Disasters are an inevitable part of life. Indeed, they may have been a key evolutionary catalyst for the emergence of modern humans. During the Ice Age, relatively rapid climatic shifts destroyed some environments while creating others. It may have been during this period that humans finessed the capacity for adapting to a multitude of ecological niches—and eventually, the ability to alter environments to meet needs, desires, and even fantasies. Nevertheless, there are limits to our ingenuity, as Hurricane Sandy showed so harshly.

Staten Island resident recovering after Sandy hit Northeast. John Minchillo/AP.

Surviving disasters is thus part of our biological makeup, and grief is an inevitable part of the process of healing any significant loss. After the initial shock wears off, grief can overwhelm, especially when loss is all encompassing. This is particularly likely if there has been loss of life (including pets). Reuniting community is key to healing grief. The signs of grief (which are often confused with symptoms of depression) indicate the depth of emotional suffering a person is experiencing as well as the need for support.

Bowlby saw a direct connection between grief and attachment. He believed that through grief we are able to remain attached to who or what has been lost. Paradoxically, complicated grief occurs when what has been lost is too dead. Grief never ends. Rather, we are meant to continually reconfigure our relationship with what has been lost, our memories changing as we change.  As M. Katherine Shear, MD asserted, “Grief is a permanent state. You don’t really resolve grief. Rather, you change the relationship with the deceased” (or the lost home, neighborhood, school).

I believe grief “works”—that is, serves its adaptive purpose—when it signals the need for attachment and the need to bring communities back together (or even create communities for the first time). Stories of loss solidify emotional bonds (and community), and these stories are the stuff of grief work. By collectively remembering what was once tangible, we allow the past to become a collective story of bereavement, and thus create a safer space to embrace whatever emerges, including the next, inevitable loss.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

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