Healing Trauma in Natural or Human-made Disasters

Loss resulting from natural or human-induced disaster can lead to complicated grief reactions for individuals and families, which in turn may impair their mental and physical health as well as their ability to adapt and heal.

There are many factors that may affect the extent, intensity and manner in which individuals grieve following this kind of disasters. A very important factor is whether the loss was considered preventable or not. Although unexpected losses due to disasters have the potential to complicate individuals’ bereavement process, one that is considered preventable adds extra layers of emotions, such as anger, despair, and frustration.

The traumatic nature of disasters adds to normal grief response feelings of great despair and uncertainty, a loss of family supports, as well as “bereavement overload” (Neimeyer et all, 2011). Relentless rumination over what exactly happened to the deceased, the exact cause of death, combined with a delay in receiving information can cause a severe amount of stress to the bereaved.

The role of the therapist can be multifaceted following disasters. They may be called upon to provide services to groups of people—families, first responders, rescuers, agencies involved—communities, as well as individuals. There may be a need to help those responsible find ways to present information to survivors and the bereaved in sensitive and trauma-informed ways.

Interventions in the acute phase, which help people come to terms with the reality of the situation may be helpful. A caring and supportive approach in conveying information about deaths to loved ones, which can help the bereaved make sense of what happened, and reduce uncertainty and confusion.

Collective interventions such as visiting the site of the disaster once rescue efforts have been completed can be a very powerful experience and important step in the healing process. As difficult as it may seem, there are also a number of potential benefits. Not everyone will be ready to “confront” this reality so it is important that this option is offered not just at the beginning but also later on for those who wish to join another time. Rituals can be performed at or around disaster sites, which can help connect everyone involved, facilitated by trained counsellors.

If efforts are coordinated, then information can be shared with individuals and families in response to their questions, in a sensitive manner by therapists and others, to help with their cognitive and emotional coping. It is essential to help those affected by trying to understand what occurred and eventually make some personal meaning out of the experience. This can be a long-term process and psychotherapeutic support along the way can be helpful.


Neimeyer, R., Harris, D., Winokeuer H., & Thornton, G.,(Eds.). (2011). Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society. New York: Taylor and Francis Group

© 2014 Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

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