Thanksgiving can be a time to heal, deal with remorse of natural disasters

Natural disasters made 2011 a loss-filled year. A UAB psychologist says plan ahead and don’t over commit.

It started with blizzards. Tornadoes followed. Flooding ensued. 2011 has been filled with natural disasters — deadly and devastating — and Thanksgiving may be the year’s first family holiday where things look different around the dinner table.

thanksgiving_storyNatural disasters are blamed for hundreds of deaths nationwide, and it has been one of the deadliest years in the United States since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, according to the National Climactic Data Center. In Alabama alone, 255 people were killed during two tornadoes in April, according the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

“For survivors of natural disasters from earlier this year, this may be a very different holiday season; they’re grateful for their lives, but guilty that they survived when others didn’t,” says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“As families gather, many will be reminded of the ones who perished and will not feel holiday joy this year,” Klapow says.

“And though families may have a roof over their heads, it may not be the same roof as last year,” Klapow notes. “For some it means a different house in the same neighborhood, for others it means a different house in a different neighborhood, and that can be distressing.”

Klapow says the biggest challenge in the first year following the loss is reconciling the deep feelings of grief when the rest of the world appears to be joyous and festive. 

Planning is the best way to cope, Klapow says, and makes these suggestions:

  • Accept that this holiday will be different. “Expecting everything to be the same will only lead to disappointment. Accept that this might be difficult, and prepare for the rushes of emotions that may occur,” Klapow says.
  • Don't over-commit yourself. “If you don’t feel in a festive mood, that’s okay. Choose events that sound most appealing at the time and decline the ones that feel more like an obligation,” Klapow says.
  • Cry a little. Klapow also says to not fear a potential break-down at holiday family gatherings. If you’re feeling emotional, he says to allow yourself a moment to grieve or cry before you go. “When emotions are temporarily depleted, it makes it easier to take on the day,” Klapow says.
  • Express your gratitude. It’s at these family gatherings, Klapow says, that you can try moving forward by modifying traditions or making new ones. Express gratitude for your life and even celebrate the lives of those who died.
  • Follow your faith. If your faith is important, spend time with people who understand and respect your desire to pray and talk about common beliefs, he says.

“As the saying goes, time heals all wounds and with each passing year, a new normal will begin to emerge.”

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