Newswise — The path to healing for tsunami survivors may be long and difficult, but the key to restoration is to cultivate a unique, personalized blend of strengths and vulnerabilities, says Paul Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych., grief and trauma expert and Professor and Research Director at Trinity Western University. Dr. Wong says this approach balances despair with hope, doubt with faith, death with rebirth, and loss with gain.
"The Asian tsunami trauma is in a different category of natural disasters in terms of scale and impact," says Dr. Wong. "Its devastating impact on poor and highly populated nations may last for a generation, impacting the long-term economy, heath and livelihood of millions of people."
Dr. Wong recommends that tsunami and other victims of wide-scale disasters seek professional help whenever possible. Within the secure confines of a clinic or counseling office, and with the help of a competent therapist, a traumatized victim has the best prospect to recover. However, for those who have no access to professional help at the moment, Dr. Wong's has compiled a 12-step, existential-humanistic approach to recovery. This approach was chosen because it acknowledges that suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition and affirms meaning is the foundation for recovery.
1. Stay alive to allow time for healing. Unbearable pain can drive you to the brink of self-destruction or to the state of dissociation. You may feel very frightened, disturbed, demoralized, or disoriented. Whatever your emotional, mental state, just don't do anything to harm yourself. Try to seek whatever help available so that your basic needs for food, water, shelter, safety, and medicine are met. Live one day at a time. Stay alive so that hope can have a chance.
2. Accept the horror of the loss. It may be hard to believe what has happened to your family and your community. It may take time to realize the full extent of your loss. Eventually, you need to recognize the devastating reality and confront your own feelings of shock, anger, fear, panic, pain, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness.
3. Surrender yourself and let go of what cannot be controlled. Resign yourself to the fact that you may never recover or identify the bodies of your loved ones, that life as you knew it will never return. Surrender yourself to the overwhelming tragedy, to forces beyond human control or to your God, if you are a believer. By letting go of yourself, and relinquishing control of what cannot be controlled, you begin to feel some release from guilt, fear, anxiety and the need for blaming.
4. Affirm the inherent meaning and value of life. The first building block in the process of restoration is affirmation. The fact that you have not given up on life indicates that you are implicitly affirming that life has meaning and purpose, and that life is worth living in spite of the pain. You may still feel confused, overwhelmed and fearful, but you have the inner conviction that your ordeal will be over, and that you can start afresh. Once you have affirmed your faith in the meaning of life and in a hopeful future, your life begins to rise above the debris and ashes.
5. Have the courage to endure and observe your painful feelings. It takes courage, endurance, and the defiant human spirit to continue the bumpy journey of healing. Learn to re-experience and observe at the same time all the unpleasant and terrifying feelings until you can name and articulate them. Make sure to give yourself breaks by taking a walk or talking to a friend, when you feel overwhelmed by torrents of painful emotions. Give yourself permission to express your anguish and fear. More importantly, learn to observe and listen to your feelings with mindfulness and attentiveness, no matter how unpleasant and threatening. By learning to "mentalize" and live with your painful feelings in a nonjudgmental, honest manner, eventually your feelings become your teacher and your guide.
6. Revisit and reconstruct the tragedy. Initially, you may be obsessed with only the negative and painful aspects of the tragedy. But do enquire about the calamity. Read about it. Talk about it. Write about it. Share it with someone. Eventually, you will be able to give a more complete account of the larger picture. Once you are able to place your loss in a global perspective, your unbearable pain becomes more bearable.
7. Make sense of the loss. You may never fully understand the cause or the reason for the catastrophe, but you need to make some sense of what has happened to you. You have already affirmed the meaning of life. It enables you to begin the process of rebuilding your shattered assumptions about the world, about God, and about yourself, in order to accommodate past and future tragedies. Through managing your meanings and beliefs, you learn not to ask why bad things happen to you, but how you can make the best of your loss.
8. Restore your faith. Meaning and faith are the two pillars of an enduring hope. Often, faith is the only light glimmering in an otherwise dark tunnel. Yes, you may be very angry with God and question his benevolence, but deep down you realize that you are in no position to judge God. Human suffering will be forever shrouded in mystery. But you can experience God's grace and comfort, when you ask for courage and help. Faith enables you to see beyond the tragedy and transcend your present circumstances. Faith provides an unshakable foundation for hope.
9. Participate in acts of compassion. Faith and meaning always express themselves in concrete actions of compassion. You reach out to fellow sufferers, and try to bring hope and comfort to their lives. By being reconnected with others, you become more grounded to reality and experience more social support yourself.
10. Adapt to the new reality. Now you are ready to make the necessary adjustments to adapt to the new circumstances. You start from the ground floor up, one step at a time. You begin to make new friends and seek new opportunities for work. By developing a new routine of daily activities, life gradually returns to "normalcy" .
11. Transform the loss. You still feel the pain and grieve the loss. Sometimes, you find yourself sinking into a black void, not knowing how to extricate yourself. But as you refurbish your inner space, your life is elevated and enriched. In the process, your loss is gradually transformed and integrated into your tapestry of personal meaning.
12. Build a new future. You continue to work toward rebuilding your life and have developed a new appreciation of life and relationships. Every day becomes a precious gift to be enjoyed, valued and used for the betterment of humanity. You have more than survived the tsunami; you have flourished!
*Dr. Paul T. P. Wong is professor and research director of the graduate faculty of counselling psychology department at Trinity Western University. He is also President of International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) (http://www.meaning.ca)
Further TWU faculty available to provide expertise on the topic of rebuilding after the tsunami tragedy:
1. Mark Charlton, PhDProfessor of Political Science and International RelationsAuthor of "The Making of Canadian Food Aid Policy"
Expertise:i. Global Food and Hunger issuesii. Humanitarian and international politicsiii. Contemporary issues in Development
2. Karen Steensma, M.Sc.Sessional Assistant Professor of BiologyCo-director of the Environmental Studies Program Expertise:i. Impact of development on coastal zones (particularly tropical areas)ii. Interface between freshwater and land useiii. Tropical marine ecology 3. Harold Harder, PhDProfessor of Business and International Development Studies
Expertise:i. Third world issuesii. Theories and Practices of Development in the Third world (Particularly in South East Asia)iii. Aid and development work with government and NGO's