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Current Events

Natural Disasters and Hurricane Dorian: How Grief Can Help Us to Help Others

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What does it mean to grieve during a natural disaster or a hurricane? What opportunities does grief provide for helping others in need? In the wake of natural disasters that have caused so much damage to the lives of so many people, it’s useful to examine the relationship between healthy grief and compassionate action. While our first impulse may be to distance ourselves from the pain of tragedy, it’s necessary that we face this pain, because grief cultivates sympathy and compassion.

Hurricane Dorian has caused catastrophic flooding and property damage, and it is reported that 7 people have died from storm-related incidents so far. The number of deaths is expected to increase. Hurricane Dorian is said to have left unprecedented damage in the Bahamas, and now, the storm is battering the East Coast of the United States.

Awareness Spurs Action

It is difficult to wrap our minds around the information that we get from news statistics and apply them to the lives of everyday people. To picture the hundreds of lives lost, and to realize that each of these lives was as precious as that of our dearest loved one, is difficult to fathom. To envision the tens of thousands of homes destroyed or uninhabitable, and to know that each home belonged to an individual or a family who needs a home just as much as our families do, is beyond distressing.

But in response to the hurricanes, we’ve seen a number of heroic acts. Hundreds of Airbnb hosts are offering rooms to house Dorian evacuees. A Lakeland, Florida, hotel is seeing customers give up their own rooms or pay for rooms on behalf of evacuees. In North Carolina, volunteers are helping the elderly prepare for the storm. When hurricanes hit, we see people stepping up to make a difference. We see people showing that they care. This kind of commitment to goodness doesn’t come from a place of comfort. It comes from an awareness of the suffering of others. It comes from the internalization of their pain, and the channeling of this pain into sympathy, and ultimately, action.

We can only transcend the pain of loss by allowing ourselves to feel this hurt. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, we must go backward before we can go forward. In other words, we must allow ourselves to feel sad and painful emotions in order to move towards healing. The people who take action understand this essential truth of grief. They have opened themselves up to the suffering of others, and have chosen to expose themselves to pain and discomfort. By moving outside of themselves, they set an example of hope and goodness that is inspiring to all of us.

How You Can Help Those Affected by the Hurricane

In light of the recent natural disasters, you may want to consider ways in which you can help.  If you feel moved to take action, you have the opportunity to partner with organizations that are making a difference in the lives of those affected by these natural disasters, for example:

  • To give toward Hurricane Dorian disaster relief in the Bahamas, this article shares several ways you can help, including the Red Cross, World Central Kitchen, Global Giving, and other Bahamas-based organizations.
  • Americares has set up an Emergency Relief Fund for Hurricane Dorian so that you can help Americares offer medicine and medical assistance. A $10 donation can provide up to $100 in aid to those in need.
  • The Red Cross has a disaster relief program set up to bring aid to those affected by natural disaster.
  • The UNICEF Disaster Relief program works to meet the basic needs of children and their families who have been affected by Hurricane Dorian.

Grief is an avenue for change. It allows us to confront the reality of other people’s pain in order to better care for them. Because grief is unpleasant, our culture tends to downplay its importance. But shying away from painful emotions keeps us complacent. By crossing the threshold of sadness, we find the sympathy that connects us and reminds us of our common humanity.

By letting ourselves grieve, we allow ourselves to acknowledge the needs of those who are hurting. To bury the pain of this loss is to miss an opportunity to show compassion to others. It’s okay to temporarily welcome the sadness. Sadness reminds us that people are in a time of need. It provides a lens through which we can see more clearly to help others. It moves us from mourning to sympathy, from sympathy to action, and from action to inspiration. Tragedies of this kind are always distressing. However, we often find that in the midst of such hardship, humanity shines brightly.

Grief and Loss in the Wake of Hurricane Dorian

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Hurricane Dorian is lashing against the East Coast‘s shores, sure to cause life-threatening conditions, catastrophic flooding, and property damage. Hurricane Dorian is the first large hurricane of the season and has already devastated the Bahamas. In recent years, we have seen a number of hurricanes wreak massive amounts of damage, including Hurricanes Michael and Florence last year and Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria the previous year. Together, these hurricanes contributed to the deaths of thousands and caused billions of dollars in property damage.

Losing everything so suddenly can be especially difficult to grapple with because all that is familiar–your home, your belongings, your pictures, even loved ones–are gone, washed away by an unrelenting storm.

The trauma of such a devastating and sudden loss can manifest as complicated grief. Be aware that total loss as a result of a sudden natural disaster can possibly trigger severe trauma responses, including anger, depression or anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. Usually, the severity of the response depends on previous life trauma and the support that survivors are able to find after the event.

If you are looking for ways to help others during this time, it is important not to put your own life in danger by going out into affected areas on your own. Consider volunteering with an existing organization or donating to worthy organizations that are making a difference in impacted communities.  This article shares ways to contribute to hurricane and disaster relief efforts.

If you know or are helping someone who has been affected by a recent disaster, the best thing you can do right now is listen to their story and offer tangible help in any way you can. Nothing will take away the pain of total loss. The rebuilding effort for both cities and individual lives will take time. There is not much that we can do to “fix it” or take their pain away. We can’t bring back homes, precious pictures, heirlooms, and loved ones. What survivors need right now is help with day to day necessities, as well as someone who is comfortable being a listening ear and a witness to their pain and loss.

9/11: Grief and Remembrance

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It’s been 19 years since the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11. On September 11, 2001, two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City and one plane crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. A fourth plane, headed to Washington D.C. was brought down in a Pennsylvania field in a struggle between civilian passengers and the hijackers. 2,996 lives were lost and thousands were injured.

American Tragedy

The effects of the tragedy on American life were monumental, and the image of the planes hitting the buildings was burned into our collective consciousness. Across the nation, citizens sat in front of television screens, hardly able to believe their eyes. Over and over again, news stations showed the planes tearing through steel and glass, the plumes of smoke rising to the sky, and the citizens, firefighters, and police officers of New York City caked in dust and rubble.

As a nation, we mourned collectively. We mourned the disruption of national security, the desecration of a national symbol, and most discouraging of all, the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives. In 2009, Congress designated September 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance, officially marking the day as a time to reflect on the tragedy and honor the lives that were lost.

Personal Tragedy

But September 11 is hardest of all for families and friends who lost loved ones on that day. While the entire nation mourns the loss of its citizens, nobody grieves like a wife who lost her husband, a father who lost his daughter, or a child who lost a parent. For those who were personally connected to the victims of the terrorist attack, the weeks of early September are often extremely difficult to get through.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many of those who were personally tied to the attacks experienced significant psychological trauma. Many of the injured civilians, first responders, family members of the victims, and people who witnessed the terrorist attack firsthand struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sought out counseling and therapy. The events of 9/11 have changed their lives forever, and their pain needs to be acknowledged by a loving and supportive community.

Support and Remembrance

For this reason, it’s important that we continue to show them that we care. We don’t need to crowd or overwhelm them. But we do need to honor the memory of their loved ones and respect the lives that were lost by taking the time to remember. When September 11 rolls around again, it’s tempting to dive into our jobs and our personal lives to avoid thinking about the tragedy. But instead of losing ourselves in work, we should take this time to fully address the events that occurred 19 years ago. Remembrance is the gateway to healing.

Moment of Silence

We are creatures of ceremony, and in difficult times, we often turn to rituals to acknowledge our true feelings. Funeral services do a particularly good job of allowing us to embrace our emotions, and funeral elements such as the visitation, the gathering, the time of eulogy and remembrance, and the use of symbols, music, and readings enhance the ceremony.

In the same way, when a cultural event changes our lives, we can turn to rituals to process our thoughts. The moment of silence is a useful ritual that we can participate in every year on September 11. At 8:46 AM (Eastern Time), many people choose to enter a period of silent reflection at the time of day when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. This September 11, consider planning your schedule around this moment of silence, so that you can join with others across the country in honoring the lives that were lost and showing your respect.

Meaningful Actions

Actions bring meaning to experience and help us heal. If you have an American flag, fly it at half-mast on this day to honor the memory of the 9/11 victims. This national ritual functions as a powerful symbol of mourning and unifies us in our grief. You can also use your social media account as a tool to express your support. On Facebook, you can like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, or you can follow the Memorial Museum Account on Twitter. Ask your family and friends to support this wonderful museum on their accounts as well. By doing so, you draw attention to a resource that does great work in honoring the lives that were lost on 9/11.

A Time of Healing

Times of reflection are times of healing. We need constant reminders, year after year. It will be a healing event when we remember in 2027. It will be a healing event when we remember in 2057. We will never be “over” 9/11, and if we ever were to adopt such a mindset, it would be indicative of our inability to acknowledge the personal loss of thousands of individuals as well as our loss as a nation. By acknowledging the pain of the loss and allowing ourselves to mourn as a nation, we strengthen our ties to each other and experience something valuable.

As anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows, the grief journey is not linear. Grief bursts occur throughout the lifetime of anyone who has experienced a loss. National grief bursts can occur as well, so it’s important that we acknowledge the continuation of grief after the tragedy. September 11 will never stop hurting. But through acts of remembrance, we can take healing steps, grow closer to each other, cultivate compassion, and become stronger people.

Mourning at the Movies: Manchester by the Sea and the Academy Awards

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It’s Oscar time again. On Sunday, February 26, all of the glitter and glamour and pomp and splendor will be on full display.

This year, one of the leading films in the Oscar race has some powerful things to say about the grieving process and the ways in which we attempt to cope with loss. This authenticity has become a rare thing in Hollywood, which often struggles to deliver accurate portrayals of grief. It’s not that filmmakers are incapable of conveying an emotionally engaging moment of tragedy or pain. But they often fail to capture the nuances, paradoxes, and complexities of the grief journey. The movies that are bold enough to examine a character’s road to healing are usually guilty of oversimplification.

But Manchester by the Sea, the critically acclaimed new film by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, gets it right. One of the most important films of Oscar season, it’s received six nominations including Best Picture. Manchester is a mature and honest examination of loss, grief, and the process of healing. The following summary will carefully side-step any “spoilers” and will stick to the meat of the plot. No important plot developments will be explored that haven’t already been depicted in the trailer and film advertisements.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a world-weary janitor and handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts. His simple life is disrupted when he gets a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack. He returns to his home town of Manchester to learn that he has been appointed the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Dissatisfied with the role, but unwilling to leave Patrick in the hands of his alcoholic mother, Lee agrees to keep Patrick until he can think of a better solution, and makes plans to bring Patrick back to Quincy. Patrick doesn’t want to relocate; he’s the popular guy in school, with friends, love interests, and a good spot on the hockey team. He tries to convince Lee to move from Quincy to Manchester. But this doesn’t sit easy with Lee, who has painful memories associated with the town of his childhood.

It quickly becomes apparent that something else is tormenting Lee. Beneath his quiet, stoic façade, he is barely containing his grief and self-loathing. While the death of Joe hits Patrick extremely hard, Lee seems somewhat numb to this new pain, and the demons of his past trouble him more deeply.

The story of Manchester is painful and unsettling, but amidst the darkness, Lonergan finds room for subtle humor. This humor is not offensive: it does not aim to mock or cheapen the pain of the characters. Rather, it shows the paradoxes of the grief journey. After a loss, people go through a wide range of emotions. At a funeral, it is quite common to move quickly from hope to grief, laughter to tears. The film understands the full scope of human emotion in the aftermath of senseless loss, and adopts a tone that reflects this inconsistency.

Manchester differentiates itself from the average drama by refusing to provide the characters with closure. Funerals don’t end the grieving process. Rather, they get us off to a good start. Lee, Patrick, and the other grievers don’t have one big cathartic moment of pain, only to come out on the other side happy and refreshed. Rather, they embody a central truth that grief experts have always known: that healing is a slow, nonlinear process, a slog through the mundane rituals of everyday life. The journey does not consist of a few giant leaps (or epic movie scenes), but of many small steps and challenges. Grief is a lens that turns normal daily activities into titanic obstacles to be overcome.

Manchester depicts these small moments perfectly. Few contemporary films so effectively capture the minute details of daily life. Lee and Patrick fumble for their keys, forget where they parked the car, and pack the freezer with too much food, so that it all falls out when the door is opened. These relatable details show the subtle ways in which grief affects the day-to-day life of the characters. They are depressed, absent-minded, and unfocused. This approach is in direct contradiction to that seen in many tragic movies, in which the characters process their feelings and assess their pain with Zen-like clarity. Instead, Lonergan crafts a quiet but gut-wrenching scene in which two characters fail miserably to convey their feelings. It’s a brilliantly written scene, composed of broken fragments of conversation that are nothing more than desperate, incoherent attempts at connection.

Other essential grieving elements that the film captures are the importance of symbols and the role of memorialization in the grief journey. After a loss, it’s important to take time to remember the life of the loved one. Often, it’s hard to fully accomplish this with words alone. When words fail, we turn to symbols to capture our feelings. In the film, Patrick views the family fishing boat as an important symbol of his relationship with his father, while Lee suggests that they sell it to get them through a financially difficult time. This ongoing conflict speaks volumes about the ways in which the two characters deal with grief: one attempts to process his emotions, the other avoids them by hiding behind practicality.

Manchester by the Sea embodies many of the truths that grief counselors emphasize in trying to help people cope with loss. It’s a sophisticated work that sheds some much-needed light on end-of-life issues. Pop culture often tries to intersect with important topics and profound human experiences, but rarely is the result so genuine, heartfelt, and enlightening. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is worthy of its many nominations, and if justice is served at the ceremony this year, it will receive some love from the Academy. It’s challenging and complex, rich and rewarding, a work of great maturity and clarity. Many of those who have lost loved ones will find it relatable, and many of those who haven’t will find that it provides them with a necessary perspective. To put it simply, what we take away from the film is a deeper understanding of what it means to grieve.