Dealing with tragedy can bring a lot of complicated emotions to the surface. As a society, we pay a lot of attention to the dramatic ways that death and suffering sometimes come about, but we’re not very good at talking about how they affect people. With few role models to guide us through these difficult situations, it’s easy to feel isolated and bewildered at the same time as having to deal with the impact of what has happened. What should we expect, and what are the best ways of dealing with it?

Coming to terms with your feelings

Though you will hear a lot about the “five stages of grief” – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – the reality is that the process of dealing with what has happened is different for everybody. It depends on how we were raised, what kind of tragedies we’ve experienced in the past, and the general state of our mental health, as well as the nature of our personal relationships. Some people find that they experience a lot of guilt, even if they really have nothing to feel guilty about, and it can take time to work through this. Others may feel frightened and think a lot about their own vulnerability, or may feel an intense desire to get out and enjoy life while they can. Whatever you find yourself feeling, it helps to be honest with yourself about it, and you should never feel ashamed of your emotions – after all, you don’t get to choose them.

Coping mechanisms

People respond to feelings like this in different ways. Some feel numb for a long time and retreat from life as much as possible. This can allow time for healing, but it’s important not to get to a place from which it’s difficult to return. After three to four months, you should start trying to ease back into your former routine. Other people throw themselves into work or focus heavily on looking after other people, which can be a great remedy in the short term but sometimes leads to exhaustion and can problems later on if emotions are not properly processed. It can help to talk to a grief counsellor, who won’t judge you but will help you to manage what you’re going through.

Different kinds of tragedy

The way tragedy affects us can depend on whether it happens slowly or suddenly. Losing a loved one to a long illness is still very hard, and can lead to confused feelings as there is often a sense of relief that the stress of the situation is over, which can in turn lead to guilt – but it gives you time to adjust and sort out practical things such as funeral services and the will. It’s not usually as disorientating as dealing with a sudden death or serious injury. This can be scary because it makes it hard to feel confident that the world is a safe place, and it’s difficult to deal with because there’s no time to prepare. Losing a loved one this way can leave you feeling that there are a lot of important things that you never said, and wishing that you’d had the chance to say goodbye.

Making sense of it all

Whatever kind of tragedy you’re facing, you’re likely to be left asking why it happened, and finding it hard to answer that question. Even if you’re somebody who believes that everything happens for a reason, it can be disconcerting to be unable to work out what that reason might be. We all instinctively want to believe that life is fair, with people generally getting what they deserve, because that gives us a sense of control over our own fate, but it’s difficult to reconcile this with knowing that a good person has been hurt. The result can be a deep sense of unease that’s hard to resolve.

Some people find that their religious faith helps in this situation, and others find that rituals of any kind can be useful, from taking time out to meditate to simply focusing on the daily routine. For others, however, an experience like this can lead to the questioning of faith or taking up religion for the first time – a life-changing experience either way. We need to be ready to accept that dealing with tragedy will change us, and not wear ourselves out trying to remain the way we were. We also need to accept that others close to us, if they have also been affected, will also be going through changes, and remember how much we care for them.