You have spent much of your time counseling people through their own catastrophes, and then suddenly you faced your own back in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy; what was that like?
The night of the storm was like the opening scene in a disaster movie that went on and on … and from what I hear, is still going on for far too many people. In my first career in TV news, we always had to battle our way through rough weather to get to work. I must have written hundreds of storm stories in the newsroom, so I wasn’t fazed when the water burst through the back of my house. But when a surge caused my washing machine and couch to float into my living room, I knew this wasn’t just another storm. Fortunately, I was well trained in the art of staying calm during emergencies, so my partner and I were able to rescue our cat and supplies we would need later on. The town’s sewage treatment plant broke during the storm, and everything the flood had touched was contaminated with raw sewage. That forced me to become a FEMA refugee for a month. When I returned home, there were volunteers from all over the country helping people to clean out moldy debris. While I couldn’t strip sheetrock, I had many years’ experience doing heavy emotional lifting. This led to my starting the first of two long-term support programs for Sandy survivors who were traumatized.
Did you find yourself losing faith or becoming despondent in the months following?
The hardest part for me was dealing with unscrupulous vendors, lying bureaucrats, and hostile individuals who worked for the bank that held my mortgage. It was frustrating, but it led me to discover five gifts that helped me through the worst of it: humility, patience, empathy, forgiveness and growth. With humility, I could see that whatever was happening to me was happening to 1 million other people whose homes had been severely damaged by Sandy. I think that humility has turned out to be the most important gift.
Many of the people you counsel have faced horrific tragedy in their lives; they are in pain every day. Is there one bit of advice that you recognize as being the key to moving forward from a horrific event?
Trauma is a word that gets used a lot in everyday conversation. But trauma is not a bad hair day. It literally means that you have faced off with death and are shaken as a result. The most important thing to remember is that there is no magic shortcut through this barren psychological landscape. It can take three to five years to recover emotionally. When people start saying, “Why aren’t you over it by now?” it can be helpful to remember this and know that whatever you are feeling, you are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation.
In your most recent book, The Five Gifts, you discuss five gifts that will help us through adversity. Would you please tell us about these gifts and why they are so important?
The five gifts are spiritual resources that are found in many cultures: humility, patience, empathy, forgiveness and growth. I call them “the five unbearable gifts” because we don’t want them until we absolutely need them. Humility releases us from asking “Why me?” With humility, we can realize that we are not the only ones in the world who have suffered severe loss. Patience helps us get through each day so that we can deal with not knowing how long it will take before the heartache goes away. Empathy connects us to others. Because we have suffered, we are better able to understand what others are going through and we are more likely to offer help. Since Hurricane Sandy, people in Long Beach, New York, have consistently and proactively donated supplies and offered support to other communities devastated by natural disaster. That’s a great example of community empathy in action. Forgiveness takes time. Not everyone gets there. But it can be even more important to forgive ourselves when disaster strikes. Growth is what happens when we no longer think about the disaster as soon as we wake up. It becomes something important that we lived through, but it no longer dominates every waking thought. When we experience growth, we can look back on that tragic event and say, “Even though I wish I hadn’t gone through that, and I would never wish anything like that on anyone, I can be grateful for what I’ve learned and who I have become because of what that disaster taught me.”
What would you say to someone that has lost someone or something—a spouse, child, home, career—that might be reading this right now?
If I had a magic wand that could take your pain away, I would use it right now. There is no way I can imagine what you are going through, but you are stronger than you know.