When people are involved in a disaster of some type, they usually experience an emotional reaction of some kind. Everyone’s experience is peculiar to themselves and everyone’s reaction is unique. The definition of disaster often means one thing to one person and something else to another. A fire, weather disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes and fatal car crashes are obvious disasters to everyone, but the death of a pet, losing a wedding ring, or losing a job can be just as traumatizing to others. Whatever kind of disaster it is, people have different emotional responses at different times. These emotional responses to these disasters can have a wide range of reactions, including denial, deepening faith, and extreme anger. These emotional responses to tragedy in one’s life have created subject matter for authors for hundreds of years.
Sometimes people who have experienced a disaster may simply deny the event ever happened. The denial can take place in multiple ways, including pretending as if nothing happened and ignoring the consequences of the disaster. Pretending as if nothing happened is simply going about your life without acknowledging the disaster at all. A good literary example of that is the character of Henry in Mark Twain’s “The Californian’s Tale.” Henry’s wife died 19 years ago, yet he lives about 362 days a year of his life as if nothing happened. He functions and goes about his daily activities like nothing is wrong. In “Death of a Salesman,” Willy continues to try to kill himself. Yet his wife acts like nothing is happening, even replacing the water heater hose after she removed it. Denial can be a good survival skill if it is temporary for people for short term, but once the mind and or body have adjusted to the shock or grief that goes with the disaster, it is healthy for them to deal with the situation.
Deepening or changing faith are a very typical reactions to disasters. World-wide, when a natural or man-made disaster strikes a country or community, people all over will hold prayer vigils and put unknown folks on prayer chains. If the disaster has some type of personal meaning to someone, they may participate in the vigils or join a prayer group even if they otherwise aren’t very religious. When a tragedy strikes home, some people may turn against their faith, believing that if there was a God, he would never allow this to happen. Others, increase their prayer time, change their lifestyles to be more “Christian like,” or as in the poem, “Lines Upon the Burning of Our House,” by Anne Bradstreet, they may reexamine what is important in their lives. In Bradstreet’s poem, the narrator determines that all her earthly things are just that, things. But what is important in life is getting to heaven. Others may examine their lives and decide that the time they spend with loved ones is what is important, because time spent and love can be synonymous. Another literary example of deepening faith after tragedy is the character of Mack Phillips in “The Shack,” by William P. Young. After losing his daughter to abduction and murder, he is mysteriously summoned to a shack in the woods where he reexamines his faith. Deepening faith is a very typical response to disasters because people need something to believe in to get them through it.
After a death or some type of tragedy that alters life as it was once known, anger often forms in people’s minds and hearts. They don’t know how to deal with the trauma and shock and it comes out in angry outbursts of irrational behavior. Young children often have temper tantrums when they don’t get what they want and they can’t comprehend why they couldn’t have it, like a candy bar or why they had to leave the park early. When a young child does this, it is called acting out. When teenagers and adults are faced with deep disasters such as losing a loved one, having a house burn, having life altered by a tornado or some other natural disaster they don’t understand, just like a child, they act out. But when an adult or adolescent or teen acts out, it is often socially irrational behavior. Unfortunately, often in times of irrational anger, it leads to yet another tragedy, such as a mass shooting or murder suicide. A good example in literature about phenomenon of irrational behavior is the poem, “After the Disaster” written by Abigail Deutsch authored shortly after the 9-11 attacks. It is a short poem, with only 3 stanzas, describing how someone enters a train car, squeezes the author’s head and runs out. The very last line, after the 3 stanzas is: “Such things were common after the disaster.” Not understanding what caused a tragedy or in some cases, knowing the cause but not understanding why, can cause people to react with extreme anger and do completely irrational things.
In conclusion, everyone reacts quite differently, yet very much the same, when it comes to dealing with a traumatic experience. The reaction is unique to that individual person. Ironically, the uniqueness in so many makes it common in all. For while everyone reacts in his or her own way, denial, questioning one’s faith or belief system, and acting irrationally out of anger at not understanding are common behaviors, and these behaviors have been recognized, analyzed, and written about for hundreds of years by some of the best authors known to man.