The havoc wrought by recent natural disasters  – hurricanes in Houston and Florida,  the US Virgin Islands  and Puerto Rico, wild fires in Northern California, the earthquakes in Mexico — remind me of how destructive natural disasters can be to those affected by them.  Not only have many lives been lost – wives, husbands, children, parents, pets  – but also homes, schools, hospitals, entire neighborhoods and communities.

Think about the memories contained in all those people and places.  We humans form many attachments in the course of our lives.  First and foremost, we value our family members and friends.  Beyond our immediate circle of intimates, we interact with so many other individuals who contribute to our lives with their knowledge, skills and talents, teaching our children, caring for our ailing parents, repairing our homes, pouring us a cup of coffee in the local café.

These hurricanes, fires and earthquakes have robbed survivors of treasured objects acquired from experiences shared with others, perhaps from years of family gatherings on holidays.  These objects are valued for many reasons, the least of which for their monetary value.  Studies have shown that what survivors miss the most are the memories their ‘things’ represent – photographs, memorabilia,  sentimental  gifts given or received, special books and music they have enjoyed —  that have been saved for future reference as memories that compose their lives.

Loss takes many forms, human and material.  While some material things can be replaced, it’s the memories and images of what they represent, and the feelings and sensations they evoke in us, that enhance our grief. Grieving for these losses is just as legitimate as grieving for someone who died, because these treasures reflect lives lived.

Socrates said:  “Life is a teacher in the art of relinquishing.”  As I point out in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, survivors lose their identity when a part of their life is taken away.  To diminish the significance of valued possessions deprives survivors of meaningful aspects of their lives.  Learning  to live in a new way after a disaster is an opportunity to rebuild a life with meaning and find a new identity that reflects the many kinds of loss we have experienced.

Susan Berger

Susan A. Berger, LICSW, Ed.D. has extensive experience counseling individuals confronting the death of loved ones and other life changes. Drawing on research results and anecdotes gathered from the bereaved over the past ten years, Berger examined how a person’s worldview is affected by major loss. She wrote her book, The Five Ways We Grieve, finding your path to healing after the loss of a loved one, (Trumpeter Books, 2009) to assist professionals, and survivors and the general public understand the lifelong impact of loss on the bereaved. She founded The Center for Loss, Bereavement, and Healing in Framingham, MA, a clinical practice, helping individuals, couples and families cope with life stresses. She also provides workshops on her unique approach to lifelong grieving to professionals, such as physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses and hospices, as well as presentations to community groups. She has published articles in professional and trade publications, as well as many media, including The Washington Post on mental health, substance abuse, health and human resources topics. She has also been cited nationally in numerous print and broadcast media, and has spoken at many conferences and workshops throughout the country. Previous experience includes academic appointments at Emmanuel College, Northeastern University, Merrimack College, and MassBay Community College. Dr. Berger earned her Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Boston University. To enhance her expertise in the area of loss and bereavement, she earned a Certificate in Thanatology (Death, Dying & Bereavement) from the National Center for Death Education at Mt. Ida College in Newton, MA. Dr. Berger has volunteered as a hospice volunteer working with the dying and bereaved families. She is herself the survivor of early parental loss.

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