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.