Since 1975, natural disasters increased by 430%. Yet percentages may mean little to those who lose loved ones, homes, communities, and livelihoods when monster storms like Hurricane Harvey floods Houston, my childhood home, or Irma flattens parts of the Caribbean and quickly approaches Florida as I update this post. Thank goodness for people and organizations that plan for the unthinkable, and are there when shock and disaster overwhelm our ability to care for ourselves and loved ones.
Hurricane Katrina (2005) underscored the importance of well-planned disaster relief and how lack of services contributes to long-term unresolved grief, or complicated grief as it is increasingly called. Creating opportunities for communities to reunite is one of the best ways to support grieving the losses caused by disasters. All of us are naturally more resilient, and more likely to find the emotional fortitude necessary for rebuilding our lives, when we have community to back our efforts.
Complicated grief shares characteristics with posttraumatic stress, such as preoccupation with what has been lost, or avoidance of its reminders. Intrusive thoughts, feelings, and images associated with the loss are also common. Although at the time of the disaster it may be difficult to determine who will and who won’t develop complicated grief, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that when grief isn’t worked through, it too can be devastating.
Mental illness and complicated grief go hand-in-hand. One study of psychiatric patients in a California inpatient facility found 77 percent suffered from complicated grief. The psychologist and attachment theorist John Bowlby claimed, “much psychiatric illness is an expression of pathological mourning.” Similarly, statistics that show a significant portion of the population will suffer a mental illness at some point in their lifetime may actually reveal the difficulties many Americans face when overcoming loss. In the United States, we don’t grieve well. We expect people to get over loss too quickly and to mourn largely on their own. Both these attitudes are contrary to what is known about grief: grieving requires support and time.
Grief plays an important role in the survival of communities, bonding families and groups together through the fear of losing such life-sustaining connections. We take care of who and what we love in part to avoid the profound suffering grief causes. Grief, however, validates our attachments, sometimes even surprising us how much someone or someplace really mattered. Yet grief also signals the need to reinvigorate human connections and find new meaning and worth in life.
Healthy grieving involves continually re-narrating the past as we attempt to move on without who or what has been lost. In contrast, complicated grief occurs when what has been lost feels too dead, and the person grieving is incapable of recasting the past from a new, life-affirming perspective. Memories of the loss seem unable to shift in their intensity and content, which is why complicated grief looks a lot like posttraumatic stress.
Healthy grieving involves accepting we may never completely overcome the loss, but nevertheless are committed to creating a new life. We come to understand that we must change, as must our relationship with the deceased, or what we have lost. Grieving never really ends, although it does lose its intensity. 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 whatever was lost, including a beloved pet, home, or neighborhood. And when grief is healthy we are more likely to regain the resilience needed to face the unavoidable uncertainties of life, including its inevitable losses.
Grief is also healthy when it signals the need to bring communities back together, if not create new communities, especially in the aftermath of disaster. Throughout human history, mourning has been a collective affair. Who knows — we humans may have evolved the need to collectively mourn before we can meaningfully begin to put our lives and communities back together. Hence the value of sharing stories of loss, both to heal our personal wounds and to regain a communal sense of wholeness, thus alleviating the emotional and social fragmentation that complicated grief can cause.
Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Schupp, Linda J. 2003. Grief: Normal, Complicated, Traumatic. Eau Claire, WI: Pesi.
Shear, M. Katherine. 2003. “Traumatic grief: An overview.” Taped lecture edited and distributed by Education South Central Mental Illness Research & Clinical Center and Department of Veterans Affairs Employee Education System.
© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography). Updated September 2017.