Learning How to Cope With a Family Tragedy

Nobody likes thinking about the possibility of a family tragedy. Unfortunately, all it takes is one bad car collision, one workplace accident, or one unexpected illness for your family to be changed forever. Though you may be brokenhearted to the point of physical exhaustion, it’s your duty to stay strong for your kids, your spouse, and the people who love you—and that means learning to cope with a horrifying situation.

Step One: Know That It’s Okay to Grieve

First, you have to accept that it’s okay to grieve. Even as a parent trying to stay consistent in her responsibilities, you need to find time to mourn your loss, and cope with the tragedy in your own way. If you don’t give yourself permission to confront or deal with these negative emotions, it could affect your life in far worse ways in the future.

Step Two: Accept That Everyone Grieves Differently

That said, there’s no single “right” or “normal” way to grieve. Though it’s common for people to cite the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the truth is most people don’t follow these stages in order, or even experience all stages. Your grief may manifest almost exclusively as anger and outrage, or you may sink into a prolonged depression. You may find yourself laughing as if nothing ever happened, or find yourself unable to focus on anything in the “normal” world. Along similar lines, your grieving process could last mere days, or be prolonged for months to a year or longer.

It’s important to accept that your grieving process will be unique, and doesn’t have to conform to any other standards. You aren’t abnormal, you shouldn’t feel guilty, and you shouldn’t try to reshape your grieving process to fit what’s expected of you.

Step Three: Facilitate and Engage in Open Communication

Your family is undergoing this tragedy together. If you want to process it healthily and maximize your chances of a full recovery, you’ll need to facilitate and engage in open communication. It’s important to talk to your kids openly and honestly about what’s happened, and it’s important to express your own feelings on the situation. Tell people what you’re feeling, even if you’re embarrassed by it, or if it’s hard to talk about, and be willing to listen to what other people are saying. It’s difficult in the moment, but will take you one step closer to positive mental health.

Step Four: Minimize Your Personal Responsibilities and Time Commitments

If possible, in the wake of a family tragedy, try to minimize your personal responsibilities and time commitments. Take a few days off work, cancel the normal meetings and gatherings you’d attend, and ask a trusted friend or family member (who’s less affected by the tragedy) to take care of some of the errands for you. While you may be tempted to immerse yourself in work or other distractions, it’s important to have time to confront what you’re feeling. Minimizing your other life responsibilities may give you the time you need to find personal solace.

Step Five: Get Professional Help

Though you may be tempted to get through the grieving process on your own (and you may be perfectly capable of it), almost all people can benefit from some level of grief counseling. That may mean speaking with a cognitive behavioral therapist on a regular basis, or simply attending a support group once or twice a week until you feel like you’re starting to make progress. There are lots of strategies you can use to make emotional progress and continue your daily life, but without the neutral, experienced perspective of a professional, you may be blind to some of the factors holding you back from getting better. You owe it to yourself and your family to progress as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Step Six: Gradually Return to Normalcy

Some people are tempted to return to the normal routine as quickly as possible, while others may sulk indefinitely, staving off a return to normalcy for as long as possible. The best route for most people is something in between; it’s important to get back to work and start reincorporating your daily responsibilities gradually so you don’t lose momentum, but if you go back too quickly you can easily be overwhelmed (or fail to give yourself enough time to process your feelings).

Coping with a tragedy isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if you want your family to be strong—and eventually move on. Go at your own pace, learn to understand your own grieving process, and keep taking baby steps toward a healthier life. As long as you preserve your forward momentum, you’ll eventually get there.