As a new Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer, I had no idea what to expect in my first visit to a hurricane shelter. Would the Hurricane Irma evacuees be freaked out? Would they be unable to cope? Would they feel helpless or hopeless? What I saw was actually the opposite. I learned the true meaning of resilience in the face of disaster in that hurricane shelter.
The shelter residents I visited, some of whom were homeless even before the storm, and others who had no idea if they would have a home to return to, displayed optimism and strength despite their circumstances. I have been contemplating what made them so resilient. I learned that their resiliency came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. In addition, many of the evacuees called on their religious or spiritual strengths, and were able to create meaning from their traumatic experiences. These are all keys to resilience in the midst of difficult life transitions.
Keys to Resilience
Columbia University psychology professor and resilience researcher George Bonnano has described what he calls “multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience”[i] in the face of profound grief and trauma. I witnessed a myriad of these pathways to resilience among those in the hurricane shelter: the ability to find meaning and purpose in life in difficult circumstances; compassion and care for others; the belief that we can learn and grow from all life experiences, both positive and negative; the ability to call on our spiritual beliefs and strengths in challenging times; and the ability to maintain a sense of humor.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, describes meaning making as a key to survival in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning.[ii] Frankl concluded that those who survived the Holocaust and thrived thereafter had found meaning in their circumstances. They chose to call on their spiritual strengths, love and compassion with the knowledge that every moment of living, even in suffering, can have meaning. Frankl’s fellow Auschwitz prisoners who banded together to help and protect each other were more likely to survive than those who gave in to hopelessness and despair.
Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter
The Red Cross hurricane shelter I visited in Miami was vast, and seemed impersonal at first glance. However, many of the hundreds of evacuees housed there transformed their cots into mini-homes that expressed their diverse personalities. Some came to the shelter alone; others came as multi-generational families. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, Black, White or Latino. They created a community and bonds based on their shared experience.
I saw individuals bond and create what seemed like small village communities within the larger community of the shelter. I witnessed deep listening to each other. When we open ourselves to hearing others’ life stories and beliefs, we develop deeper respect and empathy and an appreciation of our shared sorrows and joys. This in turn gives us further strength and resilience.
I have seen time and again in my work as a psychotherapist the healing power of compassion for others. In fact, I have often prescribed volunteering to depressed clients as a way to ease their tunnel vision and self-focus. When we allow room for others in our hearts, we gain a broader perspective about our own problems. We feel less alone as we share our humanity.
The compassion displayed by the hurricane evacuees, in the midst of trauma and life-changing uncertainty, was truly inspiring. For example, I saw a young woman befriend and support a frail older woman, feeding her and advocating for her medical care. I saw a group of seemingly hardened Key West men talking together about their life experiences – both shared and disparate — from a place of true empathy and caring.
Many of the evacuees told me of their strong faith and inner resolve, and how it helped them at this deeply challenging time. In my work as a grief counselor and psychotherapist, I have heard similar expressions of spiritual strength in the face of adversity As a result, my therapeutic approach is strength rather than pathology based. I see my work as helping clients realize their inherent and innate strength and goodness.
A number of evacuees wanted to tell me their life stories, some of which were heartbreaking to hear. As a therapist with a specialty in narrative therapy, I know that people create meaning by telling their life stories, as a way to reinforce that their lives have had, and continue to have, meaning.
The amount of laughter I heard in the hurricane shelter was a refreshing surprise. I was reminded of the many hospice team meetings I have attended, hearing reports of imminent death, grief and family challenges interspersed with many moments of levity. A sense of humor brings a sense of perspective, and takes us out of the tunnel vision of hopelessness and despair. Many of the men and women in the hurricane shelter wanted to tell me jokes and funny life stories. It was an honor to share their joy in the midst of sorrow, and it was an honor to be reminded in such a poignant way of our shared humanity and resilience.
[i] Bonnano, G. (2004). Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist, Vol. 59, pp. 20-28.
[ii] Frankl, V. (1946, 2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.