Caring for Loved Ones After Disaster Strikes

The U.S. experienced two major disasters in the past month which affected not only the millions of people who were directly affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but also the millions of us who know and love someone who was caught in the eye of the storm. How do we care for one another in the aftermath of these catastrophes?

The Conversation is reporting on the work of the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center which gives us some tips on how to care for loved ones affected by the hurricanes. While it’s laudable to provide financial assistance, people are suffering from more than just the loss of their property. Their lives have been totally upended with their “new normal” comprised of uncertainty and struggle.

“Much of our research shows that natural disasters can have a meaningful impact on survivors’ mental and behavioral health,” writes J. Brian Houston and Jennifer M. First of the University of Missouri-Columbia. “These issues typically emerge as people try to recover and move forward after the devastation.”

We must remember that after the initial emergency passes and the media moves on to the next big news story, millions of affected Americans are still suffering and could be facing a years-long recovery and rebuilding process.

“Immediately after a natural disaster, it’s normal to experience fear, anxiety, sadness or shock,” Houston and First write. “However, if these symptoms continue for weeks to months following the event, they may indicate a more serious psychological issue. The disaster mental health problem most commonly studied by psychologists and psychiatrists is post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after frightening events that threaten one’s own life and the lives for family and friends.”

Many people will lose their jobs or be displaced from their homes after a disaster which can contribute to depression, particularly for those who suffered substantial losses. It’s not easy to lose our sentimental possessions such as photos and keepsakes, or to face economic uncertainties after having lost everything they owned. People who are facing such challenges will often experience hopelessness or despair.

alone thinking woman standing on a stone

This can also lead to substance abuse, particularly for those people who were already using tobacco, alcohol or drugs before the disaster struck.

“In a study of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston, Texas, approximately one-third reported increasing their tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use after the storm,” Houston and First write.

Domestic violence also tends to increase in communities that experience a disaster.

“After Hurricane Katrina, another study found that, among women in Mississippi who were displaced from their homes, domestic violence rates increased dramatically,” the researchers write. “Perpetrators may feel a loss of control following the disaster and turn to abusive behavior to try to gain that control back in their personal relationships.”

These issues may continue for weeks, months, and even years after the disaster, with events such as the anniversary of the hurricane or even a heavy rainstorm triggering reactions.

“In addition, early disaster recovery efforts often focus on physical reconstruction. Psychological recovery may end up on the back burner,” the researchers say, which is why they encourage individuals and organizations who are working with survivors to be aware of how the disaster is impacting their mental and emotional health.

“For example, combating domestic violence after a disaster will require collaboration among disaster organizations, domestic violence groups, law enforcement, local media and more,” they recommend. “Resources intended to help women and families experiencing domestic violence – such as legal aid or transportation assistance – should be included in disaster response programs.”

“Social capital and support may be the most important resources for individuals coping with disasters,” the researchers suggest. “Community events, such as neighborhood dinners, might help foster connections. Social media platforms can help bring together neighbors who are displaced and waiting to return home.”

Mental health interventions such as psychological first-aid, crisis counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy can also help those who have experienced disaster.

For those seeking help, a free Disaster Distress Helpline is available for disaster survivors.

If there was ever a time to shine the light of Christ into the darkness, it is now. Some people may be angry at God for allowing this to happen; others feel abandoned by Him. We know that God never abandons us, but when we’re walking in darkness, it’s easy to forget. Sometimes a softly spoken Scripture verse such as, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5) or the precious words David spoke to his son, Solomon in 1Chronicles 28:20 when he said: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you . . . “ will be enough to remind the distressed that God is with them in spite of how alone they may feel.

But most of all, BE Christ to that person. Be a loving listener, a shoulder to cry on. Your words of reassurance and hope may be the only positive message they receive all day.

We should also be mindful of the fact that the Evil One, the great hater of mankind, will be preying upon the vulnerable with all kinds of negative and hopeless thoughts. Say prayers of protection for your loved ones, particularly the Rosary, which is the greatest weapon in our Spiritual Warfare arsenal.

At some of the darkest moments of her life, such as when her son was killed in a car accident, Women of Grace founder Johnnette S. Benkovic said in her book, The Rosary: Your Weapon for Spiritual Warfare:  “I clung to my Rosary as if the air I breathed depended upon it. Spiritually speaking, it did.”

Our loves ones who have lost so much are surely feeling the same way. Cling to your Rosary on their behalf.

Let us join together in reciting this prayer, provided by Catholic Social Services, for those who have been affected – and will remain affected – by these storms for the months and years to come.

Compassionate Lord, we pray for those who have been devastated by
recent natural disasters. We remember those who have lost their lives
so suddenly. We hold in our hearts the families forever changed by
grief and loss. Bring them consolation and comfort. Surround them
with our prayers for strength. Bless those who have survived and heal
their memories of trauma and devastation. May they have the courage
to face the long road of rebuilding ahead.

We ask your blessing on all those who have lost their homes, their
livelihoods, their security and their hope. Bless the work of relief
agencies and those providing emergency assistance. May their work
be guided by the grace and strength that comes from You alone.

Help us to respond with generosity in prayer, in assistance, in aid to the
best of our abilities. Keep our hearts focused on the needs of those
affected, even after the crisis is over. We ask this in Jesus’ name,


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