The Chattanooga, Tenn. psychotherapist says finding hope after a terrible tragedy takes time. This is third of three parts.


There are emotions so powerful they swallow the words that attempt to describe them. We hear them in the wails, in the screams, and in the grief-stricken silence. When I paid a visit to a local shelter for Hurricane Katrina survivors in my hometown, I saw that emotion in eyes that wouldn’t look into mine. After introducing myself, I asked a group of women sitting outside, “Would anyone like to share a little of her story?” They looked away. “You’re probably not up to it right now …” I said, feeling the need to be respectful of them.


They nodded their heads in agreement. I moved quickly from their presence, as if I were an intruder, a fresh face in the midst of haggard hearts. What I’d learned in graduate counseling classes seemed inadequate at that moment. I was humbled in the face of such pain.


Survivors of natural disasters experience everything from elation to despair, disbelief to extreme distress. As in the stages of grief, they move from shock and denial to anger, bargaining, and eventually acceptance.


For them, talking is important, but they must be able to move from one stage to the next before it becomes comfortable. They have to be able to express their deep emotions. They must find their loved ones. They find incredible comfort in normal, everyday activities like grooming, eating with friends, or walking. It is important that survivors ultimately find meaning in their experiences, no matter how painful. As humans, we must find a way to hold suffering in our minds, to experience again from a safe place that somehow redeems hope in order to move through darkness into light.


Tabi Upton is a psychotherapist and columnist in Chattanooga, Tenn.