Few things remind us more vividly of our mortality than...

Coping/ Mortal Matters

September 14, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Few things remind us more vividly of our mortality than the awesome force of nature on a rampage.

When Hurricane Andrew swept through south Florida and Louisiana, it left a trail of destruction for thousands of families. The process of adjusting to the losses they encountered will be gradual and difficult -- and in many ways it will resemble the process of mourning a death.

Grief counselors point out that there are parallels between the grief that follows the death of a loved one and the losses from natural disasters. Paying attention to the emotional devastation as well as the physical losses can help to ease the adjustment period that lies ahead.

Particularly in the Miami area, Andrew's victims are reeling from multiple losses. People have lost their homes as well as the possessions and mementos that help record the stories of their lives. They have also been robbed of the comforting illusion of security that four walls and a roof usually provide.

Sharon Lerner, director of education at the St. Francis Center in Washington, D.C., a non-sectarian, non-profit organization that works with grieving people, points to several similarities between the process of coping with disaster and mourning a death.

Ms. Lerner says that people coping with Andrew's aftermath should not be surprised if they feel a sense of confusion or other signs of a normal grieving process. For instance, they may be surprised by unexplained and sometimes extreme changes in normal behavior patterns.

Someone may cope beautifully with hardships and uncertainty for days, then suddenly fly off the handle for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, the family insomniac may want to sleep around the clock. Hearty

eaters may lose their appetites, while others may find that they're always hungry.

Many people may feel an unaccustomed sense of emptiness and despair, or a restlessness and inability to concentrate. People will express anger -- sometimes suddenly or in unexpected and inappropriate ways.

Almost everyone will review preparations for the hurricane, second guessing themselves or someone else as they try to make sense of what happened. There will be a lot of guilt trips and a lot of finger-pointing, deserved or not.

Many people will feel a sense of panic as they look to the future, a future that might look exceedingly empty and bleak.

Ms. Lerner points out that all these symptoms are normal for people coping with a major loss. Knowing that this behavior is not unusual in these situations can make the adjustment process easier.

There are several stages in coping with a loss, but there is no set order in which people experience them. Following a death, the process of withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in the future may be the last step in the mourning process. In Florida and Louisiana, that step may by necessity come before people have fully acknowledged the magnitude of their losses.

But the order in which the stages of mourning occur is not as important as the fact that people pay attention to the need to come to terms with what has happened, acknowledge the pain of the losses and, eventually, adjust to the new reality.

Surviving any kind of loss is not an event, but rather a process lived each day.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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