Dear Friends of the Montecito Mudslides,
I write to you with a heavy yet hopeful heart. Having lost my own home during Hurricane Sandy and having worked with hundreds of similar survivors including those closely affected by September 11th, I reach out to you with both hands with the intention of helping you through this treacherous moment in history.
What helped me the most was realizing that this wasn't personal. I was just one of a million people who were doing their best to recoup and rebuild in the wake of this disaster. With that in mind, and because, as a therapist I had spent years working with family members, survivors, and eyewitness to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, I organized two support groups where people who had lost their homes could meet to share information, experiences, and release frustration. Since emotional recovery from a catastrophe can take three to five years, some of us continued meeting until the fourth anniversary had passed.
Sharing our tears, hopes, and moments of triumph brought us closer together. If there is any silver lining to getting through the harsh journey of rebuilding your life, it is discovering what—and who—is truly important. Anyone who has your back during this time will be a friend for life. You also learn that you are stronger than you realized and that no catastrophe can destroy the core of who you are.
It is my personal belief that most misfortune is a blessing in disguise. But it can take a while before we see it that way. The long and winding road to that place where we come to terms with our losses and begin to build our new sense of self requires that we give ourselves all the time we need to process the unthinkable, with compassion for ourselves and others. There is no predictable timetable or linear path for healing. I have never met anyone who decided that three weeks from today at 2:37 p.m. she would be "over it" and made it happen exactly like that. It's impossible to predict how the heart heals or how long it is going to take.
Now, more than ever, make sure you get enough rest, stay hydrated, and try to follow a regular schedule. Try to eat at regular meal times. It may surprise you but something simple, like choosing what you are going to eat can help you regain a sense of control in the face of this major loss.
Avoid isolation. Staying connected to others who get what you are going through will prove to be the most important emotional investment of your time and energy. It will help cushion the shock and heartache as you navigate the confusing labyrinth around you.
THE FIVE GIFTS It was during a particularly difficult time that I gave myself 48 hours to relax and reboot. During meditation, my inner voice whispered five words and suggested I write them down: Humility. Patience. Empathy. Forgiveness. Growth. I cover them in depth in my new book The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes (HCI Books, April 2018).
These are the five gifts we need to recover from devastating loss:
Humility helps us come to terms with what we cannot control. You did not create the mudslide. Nor could you have prevented it. Life does not always give us what we want. Nor is it what we expect. Patience takes the edge off when well-meaning people ask, "Aren't you over it yet?" The long and winding road to that place where we come to terms with our losses and begin to build our new sense of self demands that we give ourselves all the time we need to process the unthinkable, with compassion for ourselves and others. We need to unlearn the habits of impatience and take stock of those beliefs about life that no longer hold true.
Empathy is the gift that connects us with others. Although we might want to isolate, we need empathy during cycles of instability and loss, such as during war, epidemic, gas shortages, or seasons of flooding, mudslides, drought and wildfires.
Forgiveness helps you to stop blaming yourself. It's not your fault. Although you may be too shattered for a while to go to work or socialize or be a productive member of society, living with acute stress does not mean you have failed. Like breaking a leg, a serious injury to the psyche often gets us benched while the regular game of life goes on. It may seem strange that forgiving ourselves for having such perfectly human reactions is harder than forgiving whatever caused them.
Finally, the gift of growth allows us to look back on those very painful events and say, "I never wanted to go through that nor would I wish it on someone else. But if I hadn't, I wouldn't have become the person I am today. And for that, I am grateful." Right now, it may be difficult to see around the corner to a brighter tomorrow. But in the midst of disaster we can find inspiration. We can take heart from the courage of family members who lost loved ones on September 11th. In After the fall: The Rise of a WTC Community Center, I wrote, "There is no magic formula for healing the pain. Indescribable damage to the landscape of the heart and mind will forever remain invisible. The pioneers built their communities so that they could stand united against adversities. It is our American tradition to come together in times of tragedy. This is how we grow as a people and as a nation."
(After the Fall: The Rise of a 9/11 Community Center, narrated by Dan Rather, can be seen at www.laurienadel.com. The Five Gifts- w/a forward by Dan Rather (HCI Books – on sale in April 2018 – ISBN: 9780757320446)
ABOUT LAURIE NADEL Laurie Nadel, Ph.D., is an expert on mental health and climate change. She has been interviewed in The New York Times, National Public Radio, Reuters, and NBCNews.com. A specialist in acute stress, she is a member of a critical incident stress management team working with first responders. After losing her home to Hurricane Sandy, Dr. Laurie ran long-term support groups for survivors. From 2003 to 2005, she directed a program for teenagers whose fathers were killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and wrote the script for After the Fall: The Rise of a 9/11 Community Center, narrated by Dan Rather.
Her four-time bestseller, Sixth Sense: Unlocking Your Ultimate Mind Power, was featured twice on Oprah. A journalist for twenty years, Laurie Nadel reported for Newseek and United Press International in South America, wrote TV news for CBS, ABC News and Reuters Television, and was a religion columnist for The New York Times' Long Island section. The Five Gifts: Discovering Healing, Hope and Strength When Disaster Strikes is her seventh book.