The images of Joplin, MO on May 23, 2011 are still fresh in my mind. The devastation of homes, vehicles, livelihoods, and even lives were almost more than one could take. What once was a beautiful neighborhood and thriving business district were now a mangled mess of debris, trees, and scattered belongings. You may have watched the news that night and tried to empathize with those who were searching through the destruction – trying to somehow figure out how they are going to ever put their lives back together.
Hurricane Sandy pounded much of the Northeast in October 2012. Many of our team members were directly affected by the flooding and destruction caused by Sandy. These are circumstances that we hope we are never in, and I pray that you never are. But the reality of life is that natural disasters do happen. The focus of this blog is on how to help and encourage people when natural disasters occur.
Natural disasters (tornado, hurricane, floods, wildfire, etc) by their very nature are forceful, sudden, and often unpredictable. The normal response is helplessness and disbelief, followed often by tears, confusion, and depression. There is often extreme loss – death of a loved one or friend, loss of a house, loss of family heirlooms or things that have great significance, loss of a pet, etc. Imagine everything you have being in a pile of debris.
Helping a Friend in Crisis: Natural Disasters
HOW YOU CAN HELP AND ENCOURAGE
- Pray for those affected. Ask God to be present with them, that His peace and comfort would be with them as they deal with this loss.
- Pray for your response. Ask God to grant you wisdom and courage to know how to best come alongside someone who has experienced this disaster.
1 Samuel 12:23 (NIV) ~ “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.”
Some reactions that people might have following a natural disaster might be:
- Recurring intrusive images
- Startle response
- Debilitating fear
You can help by normalizing these feelings as a natural response to what they have just been through. They will probably ask you if you think they are going, “Crazy”, and more than likely are very serious. Don’t joke about it, but assure them that they have been through an incredible loss and they are responding much like anyone would if they were in their shoes. Encourage them to identify those feelings or symptoms, and as they are ready, seek ways to help them improve one step at a time. This is not a time for empty platitudes that are not helpful, but a time to listen and encourage.
Not only may they have lost a home and belongings, but aspects of the community that are a significant part of their lives. Helping them identify their losses can be a benchmark for recovery as they are able to then see the full picture of what needs to be done in order to begin to get back to a normal life.
As is true for most crisis situations, practicing “active listening” where the listener is tuned in to the feelings of the speaker, is able to paraphrase what he/she is saying, and creates a space for the individual to share openly and honestly is a must. There is a natural tendency to give advice or try to fix things, when oftentimes that can impinge on the healing process. You are the guide who is walking alongside, helping them navigate their loss, and also helping them identify steps that they will need to take in order to put their life back together.
HURTFUL RESPONSES TO TRY TO AVOID
- Don’t give advice when a victim is expressing hopelessness or other negative feelings.
- Don’t try to provide everything that another may need by yourself. Know and use community services.
- Don’t over-spiritualize the circumstances of another person’s life and losses.
- Don’t criticize of blame anyone or any agency, regardless of the situation.
HELPFUL THINGS TO SAY AND DO
- Be patient, recovery may be slow
- Listen, listen, listen and be slow to speak
- Be practical. When food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or psychological care are needed, provide these first.
- Don’t assume – ask before helping. “How can I best help?” is a great place to start.
- Pray for others always; pray with others when appropriate, asking first for their permission.
- Provide for your rest and recovery, too.
Joshua 1:9 (NLT) “This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
John 14:27; 16:33 (NLT) “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid…I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
Romans 8:37-39 (NLT) “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.