How to cope when tragedy strikes

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on July 24, 2012 at 4:25 PM

The mass shootings that have occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and most recently in Orlando, Florida have provided a terrible reminder that tragedy is just one heartbeat away from our own doorsteps. As we read the details of those horrific scenes, hear the stories of the survivors and study the obituaries of the fallen, we cannot help but be overwhelmed with sorrow and disbelief.

These shocking events have captured the attention of most of the world and there is some small solace in knowing that millions of hearts are sharing in concern and compassion for the victims and their families. But each of us must confront, in the stillness of our own thoughts, the senselessness of such violence and the unjust loss of innocent lives.

Whether these tragedies have impacted us directly or from a distance, we are left with the same questions: “Why did this happen?” … and … “How can we live with this pain?” There will be no answer for the first question – some things are just beyond our understanding – but we must, nevertheless, find a way to go on with life even if we have been shattered and disillusioned by what has occurred.

Here are some simple steps to take to help cope with the devastation of loss and to ease the sense of helplessness that surrounds a time of tragedy:


  1. Give. No matter the circumstances, being generous is one act that can make a difference to everyone concerned during a difficult time. Whether you give money to the Red Cross or some other disaster relief organization (like" target="_blank">, donate blood to a hospital, gather food and clothing for victims, contribute to a memorial fund, or offer your time as a volunteer, there are numerous ways you can give during a catastrophic event.
  2. Pray. Regardless of your religious beliefs or affiliation there is always a need for thoughtful prayer and contemplation during a tragedy. Send loving energy to all the people who are suffering and ask that their burden of sorrow be lightened by your love. Attend a community prayer vigil or visit a local memorial site and offer your prayers and support together with many other concerned individuals.  
  3. Light a candle. In the days following the 9/11 tragedy I found great comfort by lighting a 7-day sanctuary candle on my mantle near a window. I replaced it with a new one each week and kept the light burning continuously for over a month while our nation grieved that terrible loss. The presence of the candlelight reminded me that there is always a light within every time of darkness and prompted me to whisper a brief prayer each time I glimpsed the tiny flame.  
  4. Look within. We can use these difficult experiences as a catalyst for our own growth by taking the time to look inside ourselves and analyze our own inner darkness. Journal about these questions: What must I heal in order to be healthier and live more fully? What sorrows do I carry? For what am I grateful? 
  5. Practice compassion. Whenever things go terribly wrong there are always plenty of people who look for someone or something to blame for what has happened. Even while the community is still reeling with the pain of the tragedy, some individuals will use the situation as an opportunity to spew out their hatred and anger toward others. But, resist the temptation to point a finger of blame and instead, be the one who spreads loving concern and compassion in every direction. Counteract the negativity of those who are hateful by holding love in your thoughts and kindness in your heart, along with a willingness to forgive those who have caused harm.

When disaster strikes we are left with disturbing questions that cannot be answered and pain that can either destroy us over time or help us to grow stronger day by day. We have learned from past experience that we can eventually utilize the shards and ashes of tragedy to create something new. Now is the time to take steps toward our own healing and recovery in order to one day bring that same transformation to the world.

Categories: Suffering, Spirituality, Transformation

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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