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Moving On After Tragedy

Denise has experienced the death of loved ones in her immediate and extended family, and that has lead her to seek information about grief.

It's okay to cry when things go wrong and someone has silenced the earthly song of friends or relatives, loved ones dear, and everything that you hold so near. It's okay to feel the sadness deep and seek some solace, emotional relief, to be with others who seem to know your feelings and help your grief let go.*

We never know when tragedy will happen. Emergencies are a part of everyone's life.

We never know when tragedy will happen. Emergencies are a part of everyone's life.

Tragedy is life changing.

The past is gone. There is no future.

Safety and security are no longer.

The world is a different place.

Habits and schedules cease.

Words are meaningless.

Numbness is the only feeling.

Time ceases to define.

Boundaries are gone.

Vulnerability is ever present.

Tragedy throws us for a loop. Things that we thought would never happen in our world suddenly come into full view. Bombs go off at the end of races. Deranged souls bring weapons into schools and take the lives of the innocent. Tidal waves heave beyond their banks, destroying everything in their wake. People get robbed, beaten and maimed.

The shock of tragedy leaves us feeling stunned and vulnerable. We may be filled with fear for our own safety, especially when loved ones close to us are either gone or unavailable due to injury. There may be anger and frustration from unmet needs and unfulfilled expectations. Even when people step in to assist, we may push them away, feeling that we are not worthy of the help they have offered.

As human beings, we are deeply affected when one of our own is marred by a tragic event. We step forward, wanting to relieve suffering. We open our minds, hearts, and homes, realizing that at any moment, we may be the ones needing assistance. We realize how fragile our own lives are and hope that others would do the same for us.

Start the healing process

Healing from tragedy requires acceptance of the current situation. Unfortunately, this is not easy. It means leaving behind the familiar and going forward into the unknown. In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, William Bridges speaks of this process as a transition; or leaving one state, processing the time in-between, and then entering a new state of being.

Tragedy often initiates transition. Things no longer work the way they used to and we need to do something different. The time in between how things were and the future unknown is full of discovery, re-definition, and self-searching. A person who tries to hurry the process will end up with unfinished business. It is necessary to close the book behind us, allow ourselves to walk away from it, and find a new life that is more suited to our current circumstances, needs, and desires.

It's okay to fly on the wings of a prayer and pretend that the tragedy just isn’t there, to laugh and to sing over stories and jokes, and be just like other ordinary folks. It's okay to dream of a time and a place where there is a wonderful human race and bad things don't happen and people are kind, with tragedy the farthest thing from your mind.

First and foremost, we must re-define who we are. Our core self-concept is built around the statement: "I am." How we complete the sentence determines where our self-concept comes from. Many people define themselves in more than one way. The following are examples:

  • I am what I do - I am a carpenter, painter, writer, or teacher.
  • I am according to where I fit in - I am a father, mother, daughter, son, or child.
  • I am what I feel - I am happy, sad, angry, bitter, kind, or friendly.
  • I am what I look like - I am slender, tall, blonde, brunette, or muscular.
  • I am who others think I am - I am popular, a jock, or a sweetheart.

When tragedy strikes and the self-definition is erased, it is necessary to find a new one before moving on. The danger with those listed above is that they can be erased in a moment. Jobs can be lost, people can be maimed, banks can collapse, families can fall apart, feelings are unreliable, looks can be marred, and what other's think depends upon who we are with.

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There is one definition that can never be erased or changed, the fact that we are all human beings, and as such, are children of God. The phrase "I am a Child of God," says that no matter what has happened, God is there. His love is constant. Turning to God during tragedy is the best way to find oneself again. Turning away from God leads to bitterness and ever present anger.


It's okay to buy a card or a gift, for it will surely some spirit uplift, it calms the heart and clears the head when you see others know of your terrible dread. It gives you hope and a feeling of peace when empathy and love around you increase. It's okay, too, when you do receive for it lets you know that others believe.

Talk about the tragedy

Tragedy often leaves us speechless. We are uncomfortable, or feel deeply enough that we fear something inappropriate will come out of our mouths. We want to demonstrate empathy, love, and compassion, but we just don't know how.

First and foremost, we need to realize that the other person is just as uncomfortable as we are. They may not know how to express their own feelings either. Silence is okay, especially if accompanied by the touch of a hand, tears, or a hug. Mutual loss can be felt deeply through a person's presence alone.

Rather than asking how the person is doing, try "It's good to see you."

Rather than stating something that is obvious, try a more subtle approach, "I feel for you."

Rather than giving advice, let them talk, "Tell me what happened."

Rather than asking them what they need, look for something you can do for them personally.

Feelings are a common denominator, no matter what circumstances are present. People who experience tragedy may be sad, angry, or even joyous, depending upon the things that happened. We can usually tell how a person feels by reading the look on their face. A person who is angry may be complaining, blaming, or finding fault with authority figures. They need to have their feelings validated before they can move on to other feelings.

People who are feeling sadness will want to talk about memories, both of the immediate and distant past. Once they are able to process through the many memories, they can re-structure their future viewpoint to a positive one and move on. Those who are joyous after a tragedy may be in denial, and unable to process their feelings, or they have already processed and are working on a new future viewpoint. Either way, allow them to feel it and don't try to talk them out of it. There will be down days later.

Our hearts often keep hold of memories due to their emotional significance.

Our hearts often keep hold of memories due to their emotional significance.

It's okay to sigh and relax for a time when energy is zapped by such feelings sublime, when emotions and pain have taken their toll with those that are missing from the roster or roll. It's okay to turn back the time machine then and remember the time before tragedy began, to look at your life as if in a play, and wish that things were still that way.

Dealing with the memories

John F. Westfall in his book, Getting Past What You'll Never Get Over speaks of the emotional calluses that develop on our souls following a tragedy. Just like the calluses that develop on our hands when we are doing difficult manual labor, we develop calluses when the emotional pain we experience is so difficult that we cannot bear it. Later, after our souls have had time to build up a new layer of emotional strength, these calluses disappear and we are in a position to feel once again.

Memories of tragedy often have strong emotions associated with them. At any given moment, a memory can be triggered inadvertently, leaving us with feelings of fear, apprehension, or anger. When these types of memories are triggered, they usually become exaggerated in their effect. Over time, we have seen the unpleasant event so many times that our point of view becomes distorted, and the negative aspects are overpowering.

Because our feelings and circumstances change over time, as well as our perspective on life and the people in our lives, we have the ability to re-frame a memory in such a way as to decrease its negative effect. Re-framing is accomplished by removing the emotion temporarily from the memory, and taking on the mindset of someone who may not have been involved with the incident.

As we do so, we come to the memory from a different angle, and see things we did not see or understand previously. Experiencing the event from a different perspective often softens the feelings associated with it as our understanding grows. Allowing ourselves to re-frame unpleasant memories gives them less power over our subconscious mind, and give us a different set of memories in our retrieval system. Then when these events replay in our minds, they have lost their potential controlling influence.

It's okay to cry the tears of joy with every man, woman, girl and boy, that come of peace and hope and love, the comfort and solace that come from above when you have established a common bond that gives you courage and faith beyond that which normally is the fair before the tragedy brought it to bear.

Reader's Poll

Tragedy changes our lives in such a way that it has a profound effect on the development and functioning of our brains.

  • Young children are so affected by tragedy that the their language development may be interrupted to the point of having a speech impairment. In turn, their social skills and behavior are also profoundly affected.
  • School aged children tend to have dramatic behavior changes when they experience tragedy. They may act out by destroying property, running wildly from authority, or fighting with others. Oppositional behavior is common, as well as regressing self-care skills.
  • Teenagers and young adults who experience tragedy lose their sense of identity and often go through a grieving process. They loose the trust they previously had in their family or other social institutions. This often results in them pulling away from loved ones in search of someone else to lean on. They may turn instead to peer groups and end up using drugs or alcohol to dull the pain and numbness they are experiencing.
  • Adults who experience tragedy may shut off their feelings and go about their daily activities as if on automatic pilot, especially if they don't know how to express the strong emotions experienced. If a support system is not readily available to the person, the event may not be processed sufficiently to move on with life. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues, or unexplained nervous or circulatory problems frequently result.

If any of these circumstances are happening to us or a loved one, it is best to seek professional assistance. Start by seeing a general practitioner. Have a complete physical to rule out any physical causes of the symptoms, then obtain a referral for the appropriate professional needed.

Speech/language pathologists are trained to help young children who have speech issues related to traumatic events. Psychologists have tools that can help those who struggle with unresolved grief, behavioral issues resulting from trauma, and those who have identity crises. Drug and alcohol involvement may require addiction treatment.

Social workers and counselors work in a variety of positions assisting people who experienced tragedy. They use activities, talk therapy, and group sessions to assist people in dealing with tragic events that have left deep scars.

It is possible to move on after tragedy. As we start the healing process by regaining our center of identity, talk about the tragedy, and re-frame our memories, we can put the tragedy behind us. Remember, everyone experiences tragedy at some time in their lives.

*Poem "It's Okay to Cry" by Denise W. Anderson.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Denise W Anderson


Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on December 16, 2015:

That is okay, Eric! Some people don't have issues with sudden change. It is a rare quality to experience tragedy and respond positively with faith. Most people balk at change, even when they know it is coming! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 16, 2015:

Great stuff you got here Denise. I just do not have a normal reaction to tragedy. I have to keep my own council about it as I just do not get all upset over them. I think my faith just goes into overdrive. Maybe I should look into it - maybe a callous that has not healed. Thanks for a great read.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 19, 2015:

Wow, Sammy! You are definitely a survivor! You have lost everything! That is a difficult place to be! My heart and prayers are with you as you rebuild your life and find family to be round about you to bear you up. May you use these experiences of your life as a stepping stone to help others when you see them hurting.

Sammy on January 18, 2015:

My. mom. and. dad. and. my. brothers. and. sister. all. 10. of. them. died. in. the. 2004. tsunami. when. I. was. 11. years. old. and. I. was. in. the. 2004. tsunami

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 09, 2014:

I'm sorry that you had to go through that, maramerce. The more intimate we are involved with someone, the more profound is our sense of loss, especially when tragedy is involved. Our feelings of self are so deeply entrenched in our relationships with our loved ones that when they leave us, we feel especially vulnerable. Forging a new sense of self takes time and much difficult effort. As it emerges, the pain and feelings of loss will take on new meaning, bringing with them wisdom and understanding.

maramerce from United States on May 08, 2014:

I had a very tragic thing happen to me over seven years ago. I lost the love of my life, and I'm still very angry about it. I have a lot of unresolved emotions from it. What makes it worse is although I have tried multiple times to move on from it, I haven't been able to leave it in the past and move forward. It's just this revolving door of unresolved grief. The pain has lessened with time, but it's still very frustrating because while a huge part of me is so ready to move on and love again, there is another part of me that still feels such deep pain and hurt from it. I keep thinking if I could just get involved with someone then I would heal, but I've not been able to even connect with anyone on a real enough level. It's very depressing sometimes to feel that loss and to also feel so alone.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 02, 2014:

Yes, thefedorows. People need to talk about what happens to them in order to process through their feelings. I find that others don't know how to make this happen. These statements are the ones that helped me the most when I was in a position to need them. People who took the time to listen were indeed a great gift, and had a positive impact on my life. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 02, 2014:

Thanks for the compliment, swilliams. I appreciate you letting me know how my articles help you. That is my goal, to help people make positive changes in their lives, and deal with the difficulties that they face. Life is a series of challenges, and the more we can help each other get through them, the better off we will be.

thefedorows from the Midwest on May 01, 2014:

Denise, this is well-written and beautiful. I specifically appreciated the section on how to talk about tragedy. You gave practical advice of what to say: "It's good to see you," "I feel for you," and "Tell me what happened." I have often found people just want to be heard. Often our most valuable gift is just to be present and available to listen. I am confident your writing is planting many positive seeds!

swilliams on May 01, 2014:

Hi Denise! I love this article! You write from your heart and knowledge. What you write about holds meaning and sticks with me. You are a great author, and your talent leaves a positive impact. Thanks! Voted up!

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 01, 2014:

I reworked this hub, adding additional information and recommendations. Enjoy!

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 19, 2014:

Thanks manatita44.

manatita44 from london on January 17, 2014:

Yes, I understand your point. Please accept my condolences. I wish him God's continual Light and much peace

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 17, 2014:

Thanks for sharing, manatita44. Everyone experiences death a little bit differently. When someone is up in years, and it is expected, then we are able to rejoice for them. When death comes unexpectedly through accident or the actions of others, then we have a harder time dealing with it. My brother died in a tragic swimming accident at the age of 16. For my family, it was a difficult tragedy. Thanks for reading and commenting.

manatita44 from london on January 16, 2014:

Extremely beautiful.

You know Denise, my mother 'passed' two years ago, and yet somehow, I do not see this as a tragedy.

I sang and praised and extolled her virtues. Like I said, keep up your excellent work. Higher blessings.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on February 26, 2013:

Thanks, L.L.Woodard. Faith is probably the single most important element of the ability to move on because our fear of the unknown is so strong. The only way to go forward is to put our trust in something beyond ourselves. We cannot see or know the future, but we believe that there is someone who does, who loves us, and will orchestrate a future designed to bring happiness and peace.

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on February 23, 2013:

There is much wisdom in the ideas you've shared about how to move on after a tragedy. Faith in a higher power can bring solace and healing when nothing else does.

Great hub; voted up and Shared.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on October 08, 2011:

Thanks, MsDora. I appreciate you!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 07, 2011:

Sure! I quite understand. Blessings and prayer for stability and progress on behalf of your family. Congratulations on landing another full-time job.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on October 06, 2011:

My daughter has emotional disorders. She was in the hospital for three weeks. It was a difficult time for all of us. We were not sure what was going to happen. She is home, now, and things are better. I started with Hubpages when I was unemployed. Now I am working full-time and have two of my children at home. My writing time is limited. I want to do more, though. Thank you for your concern.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 05, 2011:

Denise, what happened with your daughter? Is she alright? I noticed that you have not been around lately. Please let me know something, I will check for your answer. I miss you.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on August 02, 2011:

Thanks, MsDora. I just admitted my daughter to the hospital today! We never know when things can happen! Thank heaven God is always there!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 02, 2011:

Very encouraging. The message is clear find a self-definition that tragedy cannot erase. Love the illustrations. You're good!

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