Healing the Loss of Hurricane Katrina

As most of you are aware, at last count, there are 2,600 evacuees in Indianapolis from Hurricane Katrina. We welcome and embrace them as they attempt to start over in our communities. 


Some of us may be concerned about how to help or what to say or what not to say. We are hoping this article will relieve that anxiety and give you some direction in helping with the healing process. 


We have had the fortunate opportunity to work directly with some of the victims of Katrina. Before meeting with the individuals, I must admit, I felt anxiety. I was actually worried about saying the “wrong things” and making things worse! I was immediately relieved of my anxiety by the first man we talked to. He told us his story and had an amazing strength about him. When he finished he stated, “At first, I cried every time I watched the news or talked about it. But the more I talk about my experience, the better I feel. Now I can actually tell you about it without breaking down.” Spoken like the words of an angel, I realized I didn’t have to say anything magical or give any advice. They just need to tell their story!! So that is what we did, we let them tell their story in hopes that each time they told it, more healing would happen. And that’s what we encourage each of us to do. 


Now I am in no way saying that all we need to do is listen to them and it will all be okay. There is much work to be done. I encourage each individual to ask themselves what their gifts are and share those gifts with the victims. But the best place to start is by being a listening ear and asking people to tell you their story. 


We also felt it would be helpful for the community to understand the grieving process. These individuals are experiencing tremendous grief: loss of loved ones and friends, pets, loss of their home, their careers and businesses, finances, control, personal and meaningful belongings, and for many, because of being relocated, they have lost their culture. Some feel a loss of dignity or pride as they must suddenly be at the mercy of the government or charitable agencies for assistance the losses are endless. It might help you to understand what stage in the grieving process they are at. Below is a brief overview of the five stages of grief:

  1. Stage One: Denial Usually people immediately deny something is lost. “No way! This can’t be happening.” These are normal responses to the initial shock of a loss.
  3. Stage Two: Anger Once denial is gone and reality hits, anger becomes very apparent. Many people experience a lot of emotion during this stage. This is where many of the victims of the hurricane may be in the early stages. They have been shuffled from place to place, standing in line after line, often not knowing their destination, only to find frustration at the end of their destination. I met one individual that pushed his family on an air mattress for 6 miles to the Superdome. Imagine his feelings when he arrived there with no food or running water. He felt a lot of anger as he realized his efforts were futile and there was no assistance there.
  5. Stage Three: Bargaining This is the stage where a person goes thru in their mind what they could have/ should have/ would have done differently. They sometimes bargain with God. An example would be “If you will bring them back I promise to never hurt them again”. Can you imagine the bargaining that is going on in the minds of these individuals? If we would have left before the storm. If I would have stayed and helped more people…. This stage is haunting for them.
  7. Stage Four: Sadness/ Depression This stage is actually the beginning of the 5th stage, Acceptance. At this time, reality sinks in and the loss becomes more real. This is when you truly realize the loss and that your loved ones or possessions are actually gone. The sadness can feel overwhelming. It’s normal to feel sad but sometimes the sadness lingers into depression. This is a good time to talk to family, friends, or a counselor about the loss and the feelings surrounding it. It is important to talk about it or the depression could become severe. I will address this stage and the Katrina victims more towards the end of the article.
  9. Stage Five: Acceptance This is where life becomes a new “normal”. The sadness is still there but individuals are able to continue living and accepting the loss and their life without the person or thing lost.

It’s important to note that everyone grieves differently. This is just a guideline of the process. One person might go thru each step quickly and others may move slowly or back and forth within the stages. It’s completely normal for someone to move from Anger to Bargaining back up to Denial and then into Depression. My guess is that for the Katrina victims, because of the tremendous amount of losses, many individuals are going to linger in the Sadness and Depression stage for awhile. This is where we as a community MUST understand the need for help. My fear is that people will do as we usually do when our lives keep moving and we will forget what a horrible tragedy this has been. People are going to need our long term commitment in this grieving process. Usually it is easy to know how to help someone move thru the first three stages, but when the Sadness and Depression hits, people don’t know what to do, so they withdrawal. Don’t shy away. Help them find the guidance and support they need. 


Imagine Hope plans to join with other therapists in the community to make a commitment in helping those who are processing their grief. Please let us know if you know anyone who may be in need of our help grieving the losses of Hurricane Katrina. Or if you are a licensed therapist and are willing to help, contact us immediately. Call 317-569-0046. 


If you have any other questions about grief or how to help someone grieving, call us today to set up an appointment. We will be glad to help you or someone you care about thru this difficult time. God bless!