When Mother Nature Fires Back


The people who lost their homes in the recent California fires are suffering from multiple catastrophic losses. These losses are sudden, senseless, unexpected and unjust. The survivors are left with a special set of problems, and the mourning period is prolonged, pending legal mandates, insurance or FEMA assistance. Frequently the anger stage is extended until financial and legal issues have been resolved.

Mother Nature

The awesome power of nature can be overwhelming. Human beings are at the mercy of the natural elements and activity on our planet: wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, avalanches and volcanic eruptions claim many lives every year. Sometimes entire communities have been wiped out due to a natural disaster. The tsunamis in Southeast Asia in December of 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries. Many more died later of hunger, and the recovery effort to rebuild the survivors’ lives and communities continues. Many people affected by this natural disaster are still without critical infrastructure like roads, power, drainage, and vegetation.

Hurricane Katrina, a category five hurricane, hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005 with a vengeance, leaving nearly two thousand dead, thousands more homeless, and an estimated $84 billion dollars in damage.

The whole country rallied by donating blood and sending money, clothes, and food to help the relief efforts, but those who lost loved ones have no one to blame and must grieve for those who died. Survivors experienced multiple losses: their homes, clothes, and personal possessions, many of which are irreplaceable – family photos and paperwork, for example.

Fortunately, with modern technology we sometimes have enough forewarning to evacuate, as the dreaded event gets close. But this is only true of some disasters, and only possible in developed countries.

These events may also cause sudden, unexpected deaths of people and pets, and the grieving process must be done after the fact and after the loss. There will be many others who have gone through the experience with you, so you will have a common experience of loss and you may be able to comfort each other. But for your individual loss, you will feel your own personal pain, and will need to grieve and heal yourself in your own way.

The Trauma of Victimization

Initially people are grateful to survive, to be alive and quickly conclude that what they have lost are just “things.” When it is an act of nature there is no one to blame. But it is different if it is proven that an arsonist set the fire. Then grief will be focused on the perpetrator of the crime. Relatives of victims suffer too. The shock leaves everyone in a state of psychological disruption and disorganization, unable to think clearly or to make decisions. They will feel overwhelmed and devastated by the shock their loss and the emotional pain caused will last for a long time. As they pick through the ashes they will remember what they can’t replace, photos, collections, collectibles, art work, keepsakes and other things that they were attached to. Difficult decisions will need to be made—about rebuilding or moving. Financial devastation will be an issue for many who had no insurance or were underinsured.

They can't understand why this happened to them. It is senseless. Their lives may be shattered in a variety of ways. There may be other losses like a pet that couldn’t be rescued, or perhaps a physical injury is involved. People often suffer post-traumatic stress after such losses and seeking counseling is a good thing to do. Victims will grieve for multiple losses.

If a criminal act is involved then anger will be focused on the legal system. Victim rights groups believe that education of the public about how the criminal justice system works is critical. This can be a long frustrating process with no compensation at the end of the road, if the person is indigent. A perpetrator who is arrested may get out on bail, have his trial delayed for over a year, and may go through several years of costly appeals before his final punishment is carried out.

Healing grief is related how many losses suffered and how you are able to put your life back together. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is a process of emotional healing and unique to every individual. Such a big loss will put stress on your relationships. Be patient and gentle with yourself and with family members.


This article was written by Nancy O'Connor Ph.D.. She worked as a Psychotherapist for 23 years and was the Director of the Grief and Loss Center in Tucson, Arizona for 12 years . She is the author of the best selling book Letting Go With Love: The Grieving Process and How to Grow Up When You're Grown Up: Achieving Balance in Adulthood. How To Talk To Your Doctor. Her books may be reviewed and purchased at http://www.lamariposapress.com