Insights Into Spirituality in the Aftermath of a Disaster

Person bowing head on clasped handsDisasters often have a human component, including New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11 [1], the death of a teenager following misuse of alcohol [2], mass shootings [3], and, in the day before the writing of this article, the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon [4]. Elsewhere, you can read about many themes that relate to dealing with a disaster, such as being prepared [5], responding to a crisis [6], dealing with the broader impact of the disaster [7], speaking to children [8], recovering from the damage [9], and living in the world after a disaster [10].

These all provide things for therapists to be on the lookout for or even to actively explore. These explorations are appropriate in different ways, regardless of whether the person was a primary victim or near-victim of the disaster, connected to such a person, or just someone who has learned of the event through media or social circles. Exploring a person’s initial reactions to a disaster can provide insight into some dimensions of his or her spirituality.

Regardless of how easy it is to immediately determine the cause of the disaster, what is the person’s first reaction? Does he or she see the blame for the disaster as being human, as being natural, or as being related to God (or some other power that is greater than human or natural means)? This blame can be seen in the statements and questions that go through the person’s head—both immediately and as a better understanding is sought. This reveals significant information about the person’s spirituality.

The cause that is “blamed” for the disaster speaks to the belief structure that the person views the world through. It determines how he or she has been viewing established meaning. It also speaks to how the person perceives community, as well as how participation in community should be and how it is influenced. As he or she tries to make sense of difficulties and seeks to resolve the current situation, does he or she look within or without for guidance? This speaks to fundamental ideas of how the world and activity within the world are ordered. While these are value judgments on the part of the individual that speak to the person’s beliefs and inform the therapist of where the person is coming from, the different choices each bring value and guide the therapist in different ways of being able to work with the individual. This guidance will apply not only in addressing this disaster but also in addressing unrelated issues with a spiritual component.

To the extent that the individual identifies with the human component of the tragedy, further information can be obtained about his or her fundamental understanding of the human state. Does the individual perceive humanity as being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad or evil? The implications of this belief reach far beyond the consideration of the tragedy. If the person focuses on the helping aspect of people around the tragedy, drawing on human goodness, then the person may be more open to help from others and more trusting in community. On the other hand, if the person sees the human contribution to the tragedy as being typical of humanity, the person may have a less favorable orientation to humanity—but this, in turn, may make the person more willing to accept his or her own flawed actions while acknowledging the need for significant effort to change how they interact.

When God is the focus of the blame, there are a number of ways this can manifest. From listening to the way the individual describes God’s role in the world and God’s relationship to human beings, significant elements of the individual’s spirituality can be discovered. Does the individual operate from a belief system in which God is active in the details of life, where God acts through individuals, or where God simply allows things to take place? Each of these has the potential of creating different experiences for individuals and for them to have different emotional connections to God and to actions in the world. Beyond this, depending on the belief structure implicit in the outlook, the individual may express different moral obligations toward things that happen in the world. As in other perspectives, the therapist should listen carefully for places where different parts of the answers are not rooted in consistent viewpoints, for these points are where there the possibility exists for future spiritual conflicts that can lead to cognitive or emotional difficulties.

In the United States, more than three-fourths of people reported believing in a personal God who answered prayers [11], so another aspect to look at is whether those who believe in God are able to question God. The spectrum for this response goes from those who see no reason to question God because God is irrelevant to the situation, to those who see no reason to question God since our questioning of God would have no effect, to those who think about questioning God but believe that doing so would be inappropriate (and thus wrong or sinful), to those who question God without necessarily expecting a response, to those who question God expecting an answer, and finally to those who feel that they can engage God in a dialogue or debate as they wrestle with the issue. Each of these positions gives the therapist insight into what the individual understands as the balance of authority between himself or herself and God. Further, the therapist can get insight into whether it will be helpful in other situations for the individual to include God as something that is addressed in the wrestling around the new situation.

While a therapist may initially focus on theodicity as the central spiritual issue when an individual faces or accounts an aftermath of a disaster or other tragedy, this situation can provide insight into many dimensions of the individual’s spirituality. Much of this can be determined by simply listening to the account (and later checking to see if what is learned applies in a new situation) rather explicitly focusing on it. While these aftermaths are often challenging for individuals, a therapist can gather important information while still helping the individual to deal with the current tragic situation.



[1] See, for example, National September 11 Memorial & Museum (2013). 9/11 Memorial. Retrieved from http://www.911memorial.org/

[2] See, for example, Smith, C. (2013, April 16). Overcoming Tragedy: The Death Of Your Child. YourTango. Retrieved from http://www.yourtango.com/experts/the-rev-christopher-smith/overcoming-tragedy-death-your-child-expert

[3] See, for example, Barron, J. (2012, December 14). Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at-connecticut-elementary-school.html?_r=1&

[4] See, for example, Levs, J. and M. Plott (2013, April 16). Boy, 8, one of 3 killed in bombings at Boston Marathon; scores wounded. CNN U.S. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/15/us/boston-marathon-explosions/index.html

[5] See, for example, FEMA/DHS (2012, October 29). Ready.gov. Retrieved from http://www.ready.gov/

[6] See, for example, FEMA (2012, August 8). About Community Emergency Response Team. Retrieved from http://www.fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams/about-community-emergency-response-team

[7] See, for example, UABNews (2011, March 11). The emotional impact of Japanese disaster will be broader than the physical impact, says UAB expert. Wellsphere. Retrieved from http://www.wellsphere.com/healthy-living-article/the-emotional-impact-of-japanese-disaster-will-be-broader-than-the-physical-impact-says-uab-expert/1381587

[8] See, for example, Smith, C. (2012, December 14). Tragedy in Connecticut: How To Talk To Your Kids. YourTango. Retrieved from http://www.yourtango.com/experts/the-rev-christopher-smith/seven-ways-speak-children-after-tragedy-afar-expert

[9] See, for example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012, August 30). Disaster Recovery – An Emotional Response. CDC Public Health Matters Blog. http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/07/an-emotional-response/

[10] See, for example, Shallcross, L. (2012, February 1). A Calming Presence. Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2012/02/a-calming-presence/

[11] Gallup, G. H., Jr. (2003, February 11). Americans’ spiritual searches turn inward. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/7759/americans-spiritual-searches-turn-inward.aspx

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by The Rev. Christopher L. Smith, LCAC, LMHC, LMFT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Regan Harris

    Regan Harris

    April 22nd, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    It’s a good initiative if my therapist is trying to find out more about me,about how I view the world and how I see me through all this

    But I’m not sure how comfortable I would be talking about all this

    I for one have a complicated relationship with god and some of the things I do may surprise or shock quite a few people

    So if my therapist asks me about all this I’m not sure i would want to answer

    For those that do however this can be a valuable resource to get a firm look into the personality of the client

  • Macy

    Macy

    April 23rd, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    This may be something that I would feel far more comfortable with talking to my minister about instead of my therapist. I think that if you are involved in a church that says that it’s ok to think for yourself and to question, then he or she is going to lead you into a conversation that makes you feel more comfortable with your questions and help you reach a decision within yourself that you can be satisfied with. There are no easy answers when it comes to events such as the marathon bombing, and we all wonder how and why it happens, and I think that if you have a strong spiritual faith, you will come to see that we may not have the answers now, but that one day we will find them and we are ok with that.

  • Christopher Smith

    Christopher Smith

    April 26th, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    Regan is very correct about the comfort level of the person coming to therapy. Different people will have different levels of comfort about this. It is also important that the focus remain on the spiritual orientation of the person coming to therapy and not the orientation of the therapist. All of this is about the development of the trusting relationship with a therapist.

    Many people have complicated relationships with their god(s). Having an understanding of this can help a therapist in working with that person. What I was suggesting is that disasters can provide glimpses into someone’s spirituality. This may be from a more in depth conversation but could also come from simple observation (the person that mentions at the beginning of a session about a bombing and how evil people are has a very different glimpse than a person who comes in angry at God for having allowed it to happen).

  • Christopher Smith

    Christopher Smith

    April 26th, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    There is certainly a place to be able to explore how your religion interacts with the world within your own religious context, as Macy suggests. There is also a role for a therapist to understand a person’s spirituality just as it may be important to understand the person’s physical struggles or vocational life. The intent of the post was to highlight that disasters provide an opportunity for therapists to get insights into their clients’ spiritualities. These can affect how other issues would be addressed. For example, does the person have an outlook that humanity is basically good, basically bad or basically some balance of the two? Another example, does the person see god(s) as active in every detail in life or more remote leaving humans as the prime agent?

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