Spirituality During a Disaster? Really?

Spiritual health can often be a casualty of war in times of unprecedented upheaval and change. There are a number of shifts that occur in times of disaster in regards to an individual’s faith, beliefs and spiritual practices. I think sometimes this can get neglected or overlooked, especially by mainstream media coverage, and yet it is every bit as important as our emotional and physical well-being.

Statistics show that over 90% of us pray, nearly 70% are members of churches, synagogues or mosques and almost half attended a house of worship within the last week. So relating to our spiritual health is every bit as important as relating to our physical and psychological health. People not only seek the basic survival needs – shelter, safety, water, food, sanitation and sleep – but they also yearn to make meaning of what is happening in relation to God and in relation to each other.

Healthy spirituality helps us have healthy relationships, it lets us know that all of life’s experiences are part of our journey, not just the ones that feel good! There is no separation between what is sacred and what is earthly, or what is secular and what is spiritual, because every bit of our life is infused with spirituality. Spiritual health is quintessential for long-term recovery and healing from the confusion, grief and darkness that accompanies great loss. Without it we run the risk of not living from our sense of wholeness, of not stepping back into life with a sense of adventure and creativity, of not being willing to risk new experiences.

Spirituality is broader than religion because every person has a sense of spirituality, whether or not he or she actually claims any particular religion or faith tradition as their spiritual home. Spirituality shares common elements throughout the world. It speaks to our struggle for meaning, our desire to know the mystery inherent in life, and to know there is something greater than ourselves, by whatever names we use. Spirituality let’s us know we belong to each other, we belong with each other.

What I have written here will hopefully let someone know who is living in the middle of the disaster that whatever they are feeling or questioning is natural. I also hope that if you are reading this as an “outsider,” that it gives you a little insight to better support people needing spiritual care in ever more effective and compassionate ways.

IMG_6561From my own life experiences and education, and most recently being with Unity of Joplin as the minister for 18 months while rebuilding and recovering from an F5 tornado disaster, I offer these words – keeping in mind there is always more to understand, always more to grieve, always more to celebrate and always more transcendent mystery to awaken to…

In times of disaster, people reconsider the core tenets of their religious beliefs, and ask questions like “why did God do this?” They may feel removed from previously held beliefs or even abandon them altogether. So if I am giving spiritual care and support, my job is not to try talk them out of it or tell them why they shouldn’t think the way do. Please don’t say it’s all in divine order, or that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle – in trauma, this doesn’t help. Just listen, be present to what’s alive for the person in front of you.

People tend to question if there is justice in the world and what the meaning of life is. In terms of our development, we will revert a stage or possibly more, in order to make sense of this “new” life. It is a temporary, but necessary “devolution,” to get the mind to re-engage in order to survive and eventually to thrive.

Because of the trauma and subsequent PTSD, many people may have the feeling of needing a cleansing, whether physically or emotionally, and without the support and channels for spiritual care, they oftentimes will close themselves off from loved ones, including family. All of which may sound odd, or even the antithesis of what we think someone needs, but the one thing you can be certain of is to expect the unexpected. Just listen, be present to what’s alive for the person in front of you.

The feeling of gratitude and relief may initially be present right after the disaster, but with each passing day some of the most common feelings that emerge, and can stay for long periods of time, are despair, guilt, hopelessness and shame as they wonder about life and death. It may be a long time before the thankfulness for life returns.

The greatest gift I can offer someone is my presence and simple hospitality. It is so very important to meet people exactly where they are at, and never, never, never evangelize in any way – people are at their most vulnerable in these types of situations, and it is never the time to debate theology. In times of disaster, being a calm, non-anxious presence conveys the message of support, connection and predictability – things which are generally lacking in their present situation.

What people are looking for are spiritual resources, and you might be it! Be prepared to offer small rituals because they help us rediscover the awe and wonder of the mystery of life. Rituals can be the most healing aspect of spiritual care during times of disaster. Rituals give us a sense of belonging, to each other and to something greater – they are activities of faith and hope. This is why it is imperative for me to be familiar with the symbols and core tenets of the world religions, and to encourage partnerships between faiths.

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Things to say:

  • I am so very sorry
  • My heart is with you
  • You have my deepest sympathy
  • I am here for you
  • You (your family) are in my prayers
  • How can I support you?

Avoid cliches, but don’t avoid talking about the disaster or even mentioning the names of anyone killed in the disaster. And certainly don’t avoid sharing your own feelings, it humanizes you and lets someone know you are authentically present. If you’re struggling for words it’s because there are no words for you to say, so be quiet. Just listen, be present to what’s alive for the person in front of you.

Don’t give advice – it presumes you know what they are going through and what they need – trust me, you don’t. Rather, support people in finding their own solutions, of voicing what’s true for them at each moment, and create a safe space for people to share their stories. People are looking for places to gather, to connect with others, to mourn, to vent, to talk, to recover, to know there is safety and comfort in their world. Offer it!

The most important spiritual practice anyone can offer is simply to be a listening presence – empty yourself of what you think you know and just be present. Spirituality is about feeling connected, having a sense of belonging and well-being. People will be looking for moments of happiness in their grief, anger and confusion, so be prepared to celebrate life in any circumstance – which doesn’t mean putting on rose colored glasses – but rather it means being of service, caring for yourself and others, even in the bleakest of moments, this is a sign that life continues.

Finally, in culturally diverse areas, educate yourself about other cultures in order to avoid stereotypes. Cross-cultural training expands your capacity to be more present to grief, since it looks different in different cultures and faiths. It can be challenging for people to express their inner turmoil, feelings and experiences in a second language, so just stay present and open and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Just listen, be present to what’s alive for the person in front of you.

Spiritual health is marked by clarity of purpose, and grounded in a recognition of the Source of all life, even in the midst of what may be the worst time of someone’s life. So stay focused, know your personal mission and what you value most. Know your limitations, your strengths and weaknesses. Care for your own well-being by remaining open to discovering new depths of pain as well as new heights of enthusiasm and celebration because this reflects a balanced life – a life of service, a life of caring, a life guided by wisdom and created with compassion.