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Southern Medical Journal:
doi: 10.1097/SMJ.0b013e318145aa11
Special Section: Spirituality/Medicine Interface Project

Spiritual Issues in the Aftermath of Disaster

Gunn, Francis X. OFM, LCSW, CTS

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From Holy Name of Jesus Church, New York, NY.

Reprint requests to Francis X. Gunn, OFM, LCSW, CTS, Holy Name of Jesus Church, 207 West 96th Street, New York, NY 10025-6393. Email: spiritfx@aol.com

Here in New York City, some refer to “life before 9/11,” contrasting it to where we are today. Often I have heard, “Life has changed; things will never be the same,” not referring simply to the increased security measures and the need for vigilance.

When a tragedy occurs, whether by a profound personal loss, or the global impact of a community, regional, or national disaster, it can strike at the very heart of how we view ourselves, the world, and, if we are believers, how we understand God’s role in human events. “Spirituality” involves our relationship to the things beyond the physical and material world, including a Supreme Being or “higher power.” The common term “religion” refers more to how people order and practice their spiritual beliefs, often within a faith tradition.

The impact of tragedy has the power to challenge previously held beliefs in just about every area of life. Sensing that everything has changed may keep alive the sense of threat. The intensity of the impact is conditioned by many factors, such as the nature of the tragedy and suffering, its duration and scope, and the level of exposure to suffering.1

The nature of one’s beliefs, the strength of those beliefs, and the degree to which those beliefs have helped people through previous experiences of loss, influences the spiritual needs and issues that arise. Spirituality and religious faith generally provide people with a sense of order, security, and well-being. If spiritual beliefs are threatened or lost entirely, disillusionment, anxiety, anger, depression, and even despair may all set in. As we attempt to make sense out of tragic events—especially when they appear to be random, senseless, unjust, or cruel—significant psychic suffering can cause a kind of “wounding of the spirit.” It can be very troubling but does not have to be a mortal wounding, as individuals, families, and communities can and often do find the spiritual, physical, and emotional support needed to heal after a disaster.

In the short-term, people need a basic sense of safety and security. With a continuing threat, there is little else that can bring them comfort and well-being until everyone is safe. In an ongoing disaster such as a war or natural disaster, like 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami or 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the suffering is profound because the spiritual support system may be lost due to the destruction of fundamental social and spiritual structures. In such cases, spiritual beliefs or faith may be one of the only things that help people survive and find strength and hope.

The fear that life itself is going to unravel, or that the suffering will never heal, may leave people asking: “How will we ever survive?” Faith traditions can offer a historical perspective, along with teachings and rituals designed to reassure and restore hope through crises.

People become anxious when confronted by occurrences without any identifiable cause. Consequently, they sometimes create their own reasons why things happen or why God has done certain things. Thus arises the tendency to place responsibility somewhere, even if they have to blame themselves to find the cause for the “effect.” Some believe, “God must be punishing me/us for something that I/we have done.” Of course, experience and history support that disasters do not spare good people and strike only those deserving punishment.

Disasters like hurricanes, floods, and even tornadoes are natural phenomena that can be predicted. Still, victims may not be able to prepare for the scope of the devastation that ensues. When crimes are committed, such as a terrorist incident, a school shooting, or arson, where there is multiple loss of life, people will generally not be prepared for the extent of the inhumanity and evil these represent. Such events injure the basic belief that occurrences so tragic should never happen. Peoples’ disbelief can turn into rage, depression, or despair.

Survivors will frequently re-visit an event or aspects of a disaster and play out alternative scenarios: “If only I had done this or that…” Clearly the feeling of powerlessness brings up significant spiritual issues that loom large in the aftermath of disaster.

Many turn to God in a crisis and draw comfort from their belief that their requests for divine assistance will be answered. Congregating with others, even from many faiths in “interfaith” services, can be a source of strength for individuals and communities. Sharing prayer, memorials, and funeral rituals are important means for people to come together for support through difficult times.

Prayer is often a natural response, focusing on imploring divine intervention to rescue or save us. Some will pray that God give them the strength to accept whatever the outcome may be. At times people may bargain with God, making promises to change the way they live or do something extraordinary in exchange for divine assistance.

Many believe that they are in God’s very capable and benevolent hands, providing some assurance of divine protection. When a disaster happens, people may believe that “God has reasons for things like this that we cannot comprehend.” One hears people say, “We have to accept the will of God; it is not ours to question the ways of the Almighty.”

In other cases, previous beliefs are challenged or even shattered, precipitating a kind of “crisis of faith.” Many questions can arise like, “Can we no longer depend on God to take care of us and of our loved ones? How could a benevolent, divine being allow such things to happen to good people?” Questioning God’s existence can lead to significant anxiety, especially for those who have seen themselves as having strong faith.

Anger at God is common, though one might be afraid to acknowledge anger, fearing that “If I get angry and alienate God, I’ll have no one left to turn to.” For others, God becomes a clear target of anger as the only one who could have done something to prevent a tragedy. Some victims will not be able to resolve their spiritual distrust in a higher power and the basic goodness of life. For others, this can become an opportunity to grow into a new understanding of how God operates in the world and works in their lives. It takes time, healing, and good pastoral support to move through questions such as these to a restored or stronger faith.

Disasters and tragic losses bring to the forefront the nature of peoples’ relationship to their spiritual beliefs. Such experiences challenge them to view something like prayer in a different or completely new light. Believers may reflect issues such as how prayer influences God’s intervention in human events and history or the ways in which prayer might change those who pray, as individuals or as communities.

Many faith traditions advocate for the value of surrendering one’s need to control life and certain outcomes and give oneself over to the mercy of a higher power. This can lead people with a need for control to explore issues around detachment or “letting go,” leading to greater healing and peace in the face of the things they cannot change. It takes a fair amount of spiritual growth to eventually find security and peace in such beliefs.

Human beings naturally avoid pain and suffering. When we cannot escape it, we may be forced into developing a different relationship to the nature of suffering. Many faith traditions and even mythology seem to make reference to suffering as providing an “entry point” for a deeper understanding of the sacred dimensions of life.2 People who have endured great suffering sometimes possess great reservoirs of wisdom, compassion, and character.

Recovering in the aftermath of disaster, some people eventually come to a renewed or different sense of priorities. Knowing how unpredictable and fragile life can be may move us to a greater focus on living in the present moment and making the most of the time we have. There are considerable possibilities here for spiritual growth around such issues.

Those who can turn to their spiritual beliefs and resources for assistance seem to cope better through crisis and disaster than those who do not have such resources. I imagine we will always live with questions about why tragedy, disaster, and suffering occur in our human experience. While faith traditions address these questions on various levels, ultimately we must still come to terms personally with the mystery of it all.

As we support victims of tragic and traumatic events, what is equally wonderful and mysterious is their resilience. Many find healing and strength through the outpouring of support and generosity that often follows disasters, uniting communities in a spiritual bond. Others discover the power that spiritual resources have to transform tragedy and suffering into a re-birth of compassion and hope in the human spirit.

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1. Koenig HG. In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe. Philadelphia, Templeton Foundation Press, 2006, p 7.

2. Huston J. The Search for the Beloved: Journeys in Sacred Psychology. Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987.

© 2007 Southern Medical Association