Understanding Disasters

As the world struggles to understand the recent Tsunami disaster, and reach out to the victims and survivors, many tough questions are being asked. As therapists and researchers, we are often seen as “experts” at times such as these and find ourselves faced with the task of explaining the unexplainable and shedding some light on rather dark subjects.

Recently, our Director of the Transcending Trauma Project, Dr. Bea Hollander-Goldfein, was asked the question of what the research has found by studying Holocaust survivors for many years, and how those findings may possibly relate to us today, as citizens of the world, and particularly the victims and survivors of the Tsunami disaster. Here’s what she had to say:

“From one vantage point the question seems to focus on us – those of us not personally affected by the tragedy – those of us who are here in comfort and safety – how do we come to terms with bearing witness to such a disaster? From another vantage point, , the question asks about how survivors of such a catastrophe are able to find meaning in life again after such loss and destruction. There is no single or right answer to this question – but survivors of disasters have shown us that they do, somehow, find meaning and go on.

Cognitive adaptation to trauma focuses on coping with ‘shattered assumptions’ which is very difficult in our Western society, especially in the US, where for most of us, we live comfortable lives that are mostly predictable and mostly in our control. We have the belief, either from faith or ethical humanism, that life has a moral order and that good is most often met with good and bad most often met with bad. When a tragedy betrays these assumptions we are sorely challenged to rebuild an understanding of life that takes into account the reality that tragedies happen in unpredictable circumstances to anyone. The resilience literature focuses on ways of being that help people cope with and recover from life’s challenges. These include, among other traits, the capacity to see meaning in life beyond one’s personal reality and the meaning that is derived from helping others. Of course, in the face of overwhelming loss and hopelessness, these values may be difficult to enact. One’s faith and cultural values may support or not support these attitudes.

The ultimate existential question of life’s meaning confronts survivors in many different ways and each survivor confronts the challenge differently. What is the meaning of life? How can I go on? Why should I go on? Why did I survive? What is the purpose of my life? What is my responsibility? And of course the questions about G-d – whatever one’s belief – faith in G-d is reckoned with one way or another. Through the work of the Transcending Trauma Project we have observed that a vast majority of the survivors we interviewed sustained their belief in G-d, but many changed their belief about the nature of G-d. This change reflected a more accurate perception of life’s unpredictable and often painful realities while sustaining belief. For some G-d was closer and for some more distant, the change allowing the survivor to hold both belief and the reality of their suffering. There are many vignettes from the Transcending Trauma Project interviews that reveal the emotional complexity and psychological adaptation inherent in these changing, yet affirming, belief systems. Religious doctrine has a theological answer, although most religions are not monolithic in their beliefs. It is the kind of question that each individual must answer for himself/herself as part of a personal faith system or part of a communal faith system. Only clergy can presume to answer this question for others. The press reported various religious responses to the Tsunami disaster according to the various faiths in the region. These beliefs vary from belief that this was punishment specific to the people affected, to the belief that this was punishment for a world that has been overtaken by wanton hatred, to the displeasure of the local gods that must now be appeased, to suffering as part of life and the challenge of how to respond – to mention but a few of the beliefs held by the various faiths. The response of the individual survivor of such a calamity, may be guided by these faith statements, but stands apart as a personal struggle to rebuild life.

When thinking about the survivors of the Tsunami catastrophe it is important to keep in mind the cultural heritage of those who were stricken. The culture, lifestyle, family style and economic realities of those whose lives were destroyed are deeply imbedded in the survivors. Even though they lost everything and for many they lost everyone, they did not lose the foundation upon which their lives were built. Out of love and honor for those who were lost and from the strength that comes from the values of one’s culture and the love of one’s family, people rebuild, not just for themselves but for continuity and for the sake that those who died should not have died in vain. Legacies, memories and the sense of continuity sustain people through the difficult task of rebuilding what was lost. Holocaust survivors talk about how important it has been to commit to their families, their futures and their Jewish identity in order to not give Hitler a posthumous victory. Life’s challenges, even on the scale of the Tsunami disaster often motivate survivors to prove that they will not be defeated – that their town, their family name, their way of life, will not be destroyed. For some, the more positive their life before, the more loving their family, the stronger their faith – the greater their capacity to find the will to rebuild in order to restore what was lost

The instinct for life is strong. As people walked away from the destruction of tidal waves so too did Holocaust survivors walk away from the ashes of the crematoria in the concentration camps. That people hold on to life after overwhelming trauma is a phenomenon observed over and over again, often with disbelief. When General Eisenhower liberated the concentration camps and witnessed the walking skeletons that the Nazis left in their wake, he commented that these wretched people have been so dehumanized that there would be no way for them to lead normal constructive lives again. He speculated that they would most likely need to be sustained in camps for the rest of their lives. Well, Holocaust survivors around the world have achieved new families, constructive lives, success and fulfillment. This does not mean that their suffering does not remain as “depression of the soul,” a phrase coined by a child survivor who is today a psychiatrist by profession and a grandfather. They have shown that they can restore their lives even with the scars. The greatest challenge is not to scar the next generation. Witnesses to the survivors of the Tsunami disaster must wonder too, how the survivors can rebuild from nothing. We watch the news reports in disbelief and wonder what will be. The amazing thing is that the survivors won’t leave their homeland, town and family resting place. They will rebuild right there. With help of course – you can’t get blood from a stone – but they will carve out new lives. They will love, when love seems impossible. They will marry, with nothing but a hut to call home. And they will have children so that there will be a reason to persevere. Cherishing family – and the love of ones children – is the most powerful motivator and sustaining force for the lifelong challenge of rebuilding life after overwhelming tragedy.

Individual survivors have beliefs about their survival which helps them rebuild or they may bear great guilt for their survival which becomes an emotional burden for a lifetime. Either way, survivors go on often asking themselves how they are able to do it. Some lose faith, some gain faith, but for most who succeed in rebuilding they find meaning in their existence. What is unknown at the outset is: what suffering will be ongoing for the survivors, how will they regain equilibrium and some sense of normalcy, how will they muster hope for the future, how will they allow themselves to find happiness again, and what will they do within themselves to find the love necessary to nurture their loved ones. The well-being of the next generation will suffer or thrive based on the quality of the family relationships that survivors rebuild for their current and future families. These are among the learnings from the Transcending Trauma Project, when we asked survivors how they were able to go on after the devastation of the Holocaust. The insights I have discussed in this response are those that we have gleaned from the remnants of European Jewry many of whom were brutalized, lost everyone in their family and were left with absolutely nothing. The remnants of the Tsunami are in much the same situation. Within each individual is the template of their past lives, their loved ones, their faith, culture, values and belief systems. We often seem to be such fragile creatures – PTSD is a household term – used for every minor crisis that comes our way. But the big test, the one we all pray we will never face, triggers the life force that defies the depths of despair, that is the source of our extraordinary hold on life.

The Transcending Trauma Project asked this question of those people we interviewed who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. The trauma literature has not asked this question, and even today the focus on this question in minimal. Our focus on this question is unique and was greatly appreciated by the survivors we interviewed. Most commented that no one ever asked them these kinds of questions before and it was meaningful for them to know that someone cared about what they felt and believed. I have shared insights into their answers about holding on to life when all meaning seems to be shattered. For Holocaust survivors their rebuilding of shattered lives started 65 years ago. Many have passed away. For some child survivors the questions are just beginning. I have a new client, a child Holocaust survivor from Hungary who was 5 years old when the war ended. He saw a movie that brought him to uncontrollable crying. He started therapy to try to reconstruct the memory of his mother’s murder which he suspects that he may have witnessed. He is successful, a husband, father and grandfather. He can be proud of a life rebuilt. But, the pain continues. The Tsunami survivors are just barely beginning to reconstruct their lives. They have a long road to travel. Now they need relief, food, supplies, and safety. They need help to rebuild the material aspects of their lives, homes, work, and cities. They will also receive mental health support from the various agencies reaching out to this region. Let us hope, that the world will sustain the commitment to reconstruction. And let us hope that the world stays interested in the human drama of rebuilding life because the people of this region will need us to bear witness to their courage and resilience – to rebuild life against all odds.”


To learn more about the Transcending Trauma research project, visit this page