Coping with Tragedy, Loss, and Grief

Coping with Tragedy, Loss, and Grief


By Dan Johnston, PH.D

We live life as whole persons, but we experience and process it at the Four Levels of Mind, Emotion, Body, and Spirit.

* At the level of the mind we try to understand the events of our lives. We attempt to make sense of things.

* Our hearts hold the positive and negative emotions about the ups and downs of life.

* The level of the body represents the physicality of life. It is about energy and movement as well as rest and relaxation.

* On the spiritual level there is a potential for developing a deep sense of meaningful connection to a Higher Power and of coming into creative, caring relationship with others.

Every day these Four Levels of life are affected by events large and small, and our challenge is to keep them in a balance appropriate for healthy living.

While this is difficult to do at any time, a tragedy of the magnitude of the terrorist attacks currently confronting America and the world profoundly disrupts the balance of our lives. Such disruption occurs for everyone who has seen the horrifying images and listened to the distressingly sad, eyewitness reports.

* As we try to understand the incomprehensible, our minds strain.

* The intensity of emotion is more than the heart can bear.

* Our bodies react with stress. We can't sleep or eat and physical symptoms appear.

* Our Spirit asks "Why," and we seek a consolation that is not forthcoming.

Healing is needed, but healing is slow and comes on its own timetable.

In our current communal crisis and tragedy, we are all caught up in the specific and familiar phases of loss and grief because everyone has suffered a loss. At the least, there is a loss of a sense of security in the world. Things are no longer as safe as they seemed. Many people have lost much more than security depending upon their closeness to those persons immediately involved in the destruction. Everyone faces the challenges of the grieving process.

* Shock - This is where we all are now (with only a few days passed). We are numb and can't quite believe the reality of the images we have seen.

* Protest - Often this is anger but can be continued denial and refusal to accept the reality. It brings the risk of taking quick, inappropriate action.

* Disorganization - Acceptance of the reality of what has happened can bring a retreat to less mature behavior, and we may feel more needy and dependent. Concentration is disrupted while memory suffers, and this makes routine tasks of daily living difficult.

* Reorganization - Eventually acceptance comes, and life slowly returns to normal, but it is a new normal and may require a long period of adjustment.

It is important to understand that the resulting confusion and all of the feelings that appear--sadness, anger, fear, or frustrations--are normal and expected. Acknowledging this fact is helpful because it enables us to talk to one another about our common distress, and it is such talking that stimulates the healing process. Resolving grief requires both listening and being heard.

Since we are all wounded on the Four Levels of life, we must intently focus on the needs of each of these levels in order to speed our recovery.

Each day seek mental clarity and open up to your emotions, even though they are painful. Be sure that you eat, sleep, and rest. Try to appreciate a simple pleasure, maybe the blueness of the sky or the sound of a bird's song. Most importantly, strive to be of service to others. Do so and you will help revive your Spirit as well as the Spirit of those to whom you reach out.

About the Author

Dan Johnston, PH.D is a clinical psychologist and author of "Lessons for Living: Simple Solutions for Life's Problems," a self-help book of common sense ways to make life go better. He is also the creator of the Awakenings Web Site which offers tools for psychological and spiritual growth. Contact Dr. Johnston at

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