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Talking with Someone Affected by a Natural Disaster


Victims of hurricanes, fires, or other natural disasters may experience intense emotions over the days and weeks that follow the event. They may have feelings of sadness, helplessness, fear, vulnerability, anger, and confusion. A traumatic event that affects a large number of people shatters many of our commonly held beliefs about safety and security. Talking with someone who has been through a disaster can be stressful and unsettling. The most important thing you can do is to treat these people with sensitivity and offer support as they piece their lives back together.

How victims may be feeling

It's normal for disaster victims to have confusing emotions - fear, guilt, anger, shock, and sadness - for weeks and months after a natural disaster. They may experience a few or many of the following symptoms:

  • shock, denial, and numbness
  • sadness and frequent crying
  • inability to concentrate
  • feeling overwhelmed and confused
  • heightened fear and anxiety
  • insomnia, interrupted sleep, or oversleeping
  • distressing dreams or nightmares
  • a general sense of uneasiness
  • outbursts of anger or intense anger
  • depression
  • vulnerability
  • an overwhelming sense of helplessness or hopelessness or both

Being sensitive to feelings of grief and loss

  • Acknowledge the person's feelings. You may bring comfort simply by nodding your head. Let the person know that whatever he or she is feeling is okay. You might say, "It's normal to feel this way after what you've been through." Avoid offering unsolicited advice.
  • Spend time with the person. Talking about what happened and going over the details helps some people organize their thoughts. It is also a healthy way for them to ease their stress, so be a willing and nonjudgmental listener.
  • Maintain eye contact. Show the person that you are really listening and that what he or she says is important by looking the person in the eye when he or she speaks.
  • Offer privacy to someone who becomes emotional. Ask, "Is there anything I can do to help you right now?" If not, ask, "Would you like a few moments of privacy?" If he or she says yes, say you'll be around if he or she needs you, and then discreetly walk away. Come back a few minutes later to see how he's managing.
  • Try not to take anger personally. If the anger seems unfairly directed at you, tell yourself that it is not personal - the person is reacting to a trauma. Take a deep breath and say, "I understand that you are angry. I want to help you. Let's talk about how I can help." If the person still seems agitated, you may have to stop talking until he or she calms down or ask someone to help with the situation.
  • Respect other viewpoints. People's views and priorities may shift after a tragedy. Accept, rather than question or challenge, the person's opinions.
  • Encourage the person to focus on small, daily tasks. Rebuilding after a disaster is a major undertaking. It may help to break the process down into manageable steps. Trying to do everything at once is overwhelming and exhausting.
  • Accept that everybody is different. Words that are comforting to one person may be upsetting or even offensive to another. Use your best judgment and adjust your approach to what someone needs at that moment.
  • Realize that someone may have experienced more than one painful event. If the person brings up many unrelated events, including some that occurred long ago, listen for a few minutes. The person may also have unresolved past trauma issues that need to be addressed.
  • Have water and tissues available. Tissues give people permission to cry and remind them that others have cried, too. When people are under stress and talking a lot, it is very important for them to keep hydrated.

Ways to listen and offer support

  • Express your sadness. Say, "I'm sorry for your loss," or "I'm sorry for what happened to you." Your empathy and presence will enable people to feel your sincerity.
  • Offer reassurance. If someone blames himself or herself for what happened, gently remind the person that he or she didn't cause the disaster. Say, "There's nothing anyone could have done to change what happened."
  • Be patient. Someone who has survived a traumatic event may be easily distracted or confused. You may have to repeat yourself. When discussing business or other important information, explain yourself clearly. Use simple language, and avoid technical jargon. Make sure the person understands you. Say, "This may be a lot for you to take in right now. Am I going too fast?"
  • Follow the person's lead. How people talk about what happened will give you clues about what to say. Some people think of themselves as "victims" because it helps them remember that what happened was beyond their control. Others like to think of themselves as "survivors" because it reminds them that they survived the disaster and that they can survive future challenges. Their words may tell you how they want to be treated and what words you might use to help.
  • Clarify your understanding of what the person is saying. A person who has been through a trauma may seem confused or say things that don't make sense to you. Make sure that you understand by repeating back the person's words.
  • Respect the person's beliefs. Spiritual or religious beliefs can be very comforting to people who have survived disasters. Respect their beliefs, even if you don't share them.
  • Avoid spreading rumors and gossip. Rumors spread quickly after disasters as people seek to fill the gaps in their knowledge. If you don't have the facts, stay silent. If you do have information, make sure you help to clarify the facts.

Words to avoid

When speaking with a person affected by a natural disaster, avoid words or phrases like the following:

  • I know exactly how you feel. Even if you have been through a similar experience, no two people feel or react in exactly the same way.
  • Everything will be fine. There is no way of knowing what challenges lie ahead.
  • It was God's will. Even if the person has a strong faith, he or she may not agree with you or may have begun to question his or her beliefs since the disaster.
  • You'll get over it eventually. The effect of a traumatic event may become easier to bear over time, but no one who has been through one will ever forget it.

As you talk with someone affected by a disaster, you may feel extremely sad. Try to avoid crying in front of people who are looking to you for support. If you feel you might start to cry, politely excuse yourself for a few minutes. Go somewhere private where you can re-group or talk to someone yourself.

Remember to take care of yourself, too. You are making an important difference to the people you are helping. Taking good care of yourself as you take care of others is extremely important and will enable you to continue to support the survivors of a natural disaster as they come to terms with their losses and begin to recover and rebuild their lives.


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