When bottled water and batteries are not enough: human relationships nourish the soul

October 10, 2017

The local store shelves are restocked, the lines at the gas pumps are gone, and traffic is back in full force, all events that symbolize the return to normal in our days. We are now several weeks post hurricane and may be feeling tired of hearing about the effects of Harvey and Irma and Maria.

We seek the return of calmer and more balanced moments in our days. The truth is that the recovery process following any major disaster can take months or even years for communities to fully rebound from such a devastating and traumatic experience.

We each have our own personal story of how Harvey impacted us. Living through such an ordeal, and watching others do so, is jarring. Though the physical and financial misfortune can be quickly evident, most of us may not realize for some time the extent to which we have been affected emotionally and spiritually. Surviving a disaster is different for everyone. No two people will experience it in the same way. Though our experiences are uniquely individual, we survived Harvey collectively, as members of cities and as parishioners of faith communities.

Harvey instantaneously propelled men and women of all ages into a frightening reality, many of whom also had vulnerable children, parents and pets to simultaneously save and comfort. Those persons whose homes were flooded and were taken by boat to safety have described the hours and days, during and immediately following the flooding, as surreal. Such an experience has a profound impact on one’s mental and behavioral health. Trauma can place a person in a state of shock. It takes time to heal and feel whole again. Losses are tangible and grief soon replaces fear and anger.

Losing sentimental belongings and facing economic uncertainties can understandably trigger feelings of hopelessness and despair. Fortunately, spending time with others who care can help lessen negative thoughts and avoid isolation. Some of you may be housing friends or are being housed by friends. In the smallest actions the love of Christ is felt. Prayers spoken and unspoken bring comfort and peace. Sharing a meal feeds the body while caring conversations nourish the soul. Generosity and gratitude both abound in times like these.

In these long days of recovery, welcomed moments of stillness may bring tears, but they also bring time to exhale, to pray, to rest in God’s presence. When the very real needs of the aftermath are consuming us the Spirit will provide opportunities for mental and spiritual renewal. The smiling face of a child, the text or call from a loved one, the sound of laughter, every person God puts in front of us; each is another life boat sent to save and heal.

As challenging as life can be for adults imagine how much more difficult it can be for children. Their emotions have also been affected and need to be validated. You might observe changes in their behavior. Some children when they are anxious may not have the words to verbalize what they are feeling. Try inviting them to draw, paint or create something as a means to express themselves. The paper, chalkboard or canvas can be a place where they get their worries out.

Telling a child “You’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry,” does not help lessen their concerns. Try offering positive support and encouragement through phrases like: “You are safe, I’m here with you.” “Tell me about it.” “How big is your worry?” (Indicate an inch, a foot, etc.) “What would you like to tell your worry?” “I’m going to take a deep breath.” (Modeling) “What do you need from me?” “This feeling will pass.” “It’s scary AND…” (they fill in the blank).

A degree of emotional distress can be normal for anyone post-disaster. Those of us who were less impacted have an opportunity and responsibility to give of ourselves, in tangible and intangible ways, to those who are struggling with a harsh new reality. Even before Harvey, statistics stated that one in six people live with depression or mental illness. Following life threatening events, post-traumatic stress disorder can occur, as well as increased substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide.

Now more than ever may we be sensitive to our sisters and brothers who were severely impacted. Our attentiveness and “ministry of presence” to them is greatly needed. Individuals in recovery mode are seeking hope. Are we responding with patience and love in ways and places that we have influence to do so? At the end of especially trying days social interactions are what matter most. We all benefit when we are heart to heart and hand to hand with one another in Christ’s love.

Pope Francis just launched a campaign for migrants and refugees entitled Share the Journey where he advises us: “Don’t be afraid to share the journey. Don’t be afraid to share hope.” Opening his arms wide in a powerfully symbolic gesture, Francis said “Christ urges us to welcome our brothers and sisters with our arms truly open, ready for a sincere embrace, a loving and enveloping embrace.”

May our arms be opened wide to offer comfort and love to all in need. We are on this journey, the road to recovery, together. †

Charlene Katra is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.