Grieving after a disaster

The loss of loved ones in a disaster is a brutal and sudden aspect that can influence the intensity and duration of the grieving process. Grief can also be associated with other losses, such as the loss of accommodation, property, work, health, community and dreams. In addition to the pain caused by the losses suffered, many people must deal with constraints such as relocation, the coroner’s investigation and insurance. They need to respond to their own needs and the needs of loved ones, reorganize their daily lives, stay safe and take multiple steps to get back some semblance of a normal life.

The grieving process can vary from one person to the next. It may be influenced by the scope of losses suffered, past experiences, beliefs, values and the support available.

Common reactions

Reactions when grieving after a disaster may include:

  • a refusal to believe that the event has really happened and that loved ones have died;
  • very intense emotional pain that may seem insurmountable;
  • feelings of anger, mood swings;
  • feelings of loneliness, emptiness, injustice, powerlessness,
  • sadness, despair;
  • confusion, problems with attention, concentration and memory;
  • stress, anxiety, agitation, tightness in the chest;
  • difficulty sleeping and eating;
  • questioning feelings of safety and confidence;
  • a feeling that they are running on autopilot.

See the help and support resources available on Ask for psychosocial help and support after a disaster page.

Stages of grief

Grieving occurs in several stages. People experiencing grief do not necessarily go through all the stages and do not necessarily go through them in the order presented here. Several of the stages may overlap and people may also revert to a stage that they have already experienced.

Shock and denial

The stage of shock and denial can last several minutes, days or weeks. During this stage, people have difficulty believing in reality or deny it and may feel incapable of reacting.

Disorganization

The stage of disorganization can last several weeks or months. During this stage, people may feel profound sadness, anxiety and powerlessness. They may also turn inward and lose interest in their normal activities.

Protest

The stage of protest can last several weeks or months. During this stage, people may experience anger, incomprehension, a feeling of unfairness, varying degrees of guilt, the need to identify a guilty party, and a sense of loss. They begin to recognize that the loss is permanent.

Reorganization and adaptation

The stage of reorganization and adaptation can last from several months to several years. People are less overwhelmed by the loss and gradually regain their ability to enjoy life. They recover an interest in life and see the possibility of planning new projects. They are adapting to their new situation.

Helpful strategies

Here are a few strategies that can help you get through the grieving process:

  • Give yourself permission to talk about the loss or the death with your loved ones. It is normal to feel the need to talk about it regularly. Remember that each person grieves in a different way, at their own pace.
  • Take the necessary steps with the proper authorities and available services, if applicable.
  • Freely express your needs to the people around you, such as taking care of the children, performing household chores, assisting you with the necessary arrangements.
  • Allow yourself to grieve at your own pace.
  • Plan a farewell ceremony that is personal to you.
  • Resume your normal occupations and leisure activities when you feel ready to do so even if you are not always in the mood. Despite the sadness you feel, this can help you take your mind off things.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs to relieve your stress. Overusing these products can stop you from accepting your loss and can trigger anxiety or depression.
  • Avoid making major decisions when you are upset.
  • Remember that feeling less pain does not mean forgetting. You can feel better while still remembering the person who died. You are not betraying that person because your pain is decreasing. Remember the good times you spent with your loved one.
  • Join a grief support group or make use of the resources offering counselling or telephone or online support. This could help you cope with your emotions or develop effective strategies to get through your grief.

See the help and support resources available on the page Ask for psychosocial help and support after a disaster.

For other strategies to help you cope with your grief, see the page How to recover after a disaster.

Last update: February 25, 2022

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