When Disaster Strikes

Lightning Striking Disaster

As a professional organizer, most of my posts are intended to help readers gain control over their time, space and belongings. Unfortunately, life periodically casts us into unexpected and sometimes devastating circumstances: illness, death, accidents, job loss, broken relationships and catastrophic weather can leave us feeling anything but in control.

When disaster strikes, it is tempting to launch into a self-criticizing mindset:

  • “If only I hadn’t…”
  • “I never should have…”
  • “Why didn’t I…?”
  • “This is all my fault.”
  •  “I should have known better!”

Thoughts such as these are rarely helpful, especially while we are in the midst of coping with the trauma and chaos of tough times. Instead, keep a few truths in mind:

  • Most of us generally make the best decisions we can in the moment with the information we have.
  • Everyone will occasionally make poor choices. This is part of being human. There will be a time down the road to reflect and learn, but during the heat of crisis is not the time.
  • Much of life is simply beyond our control. Odds are we will eventually be caught in the net of extenuating circumstances, often for which there is no one to blame.
  • Tragic events are painful and we need to work through them. There are no easy or pleasant paths around them. Forward progress begins when we accept this reality.

The question remains, what can we do to maximize our peace when the world seems to be crumbling? How do we cope with the nagging need to regain a measure of control and “fix” what is wrong? Obviously, there is not a single process that will work for everyone. Furthermore, I do not propose to be a therapist or expert in dealing with grief, loss or stress. At the same time, there are a few steps that I have observed are useful in restoring a sense of direction in tumultuous times.


We are creatures of habit, so when our routines and habits get interrupted, it is very unsettling. Disasters tend to prevent us from living our lives in the “usual manner,” compounding the trauma of the event itself. To the extent possible, it is helpful to try and put in place a few new routines given the new circumstances. Simple things, such as where or what we eat or how/when we get ready in the morning can be empowering. This is especially true when children are involved; try and add whatever structure you can to the day.


When life is running along smoothly, we may accomplish long lists of tasks without much thought. However, when we are in shock or under stress, completing even a few small steps can be frustratingly difficult. It is important not to compare your productivity “before” with the pace at which you perform in this new environment. Keep track of even minor achievements (e.g. emptying the dishwasher or completing a stack of paperwork), and be willing to acknowledge them as concrete evidence of progress at day’s end.


When facing turmoil, many people withdraw. This is understandable: others may not be able to understand what we are enduring, saying or doing things that are either unhelpful or even painful. * At the same time, isolation can lead to depression. You may not wish to go to a fun social gathering, but maybe you could attend a support group or invite a close friend for coffee. If you have been displaced or had to relocate against your will, be on the alert for someone with whom you might be able to establish a connection.

[*Note: one response to such individuals is, “Thank you for caring.” This is a way to acknowledge their desire to help, without needing to explain why their contribution is not what you need to hear.]


Most people show more kindness and mercy to others than they ever do to themselves. Catastrophic situations typically put us into a tailspin, resulting in struggles with things such as memory, sleep, appetite, mental focus and physical strength. Few people operate at peak performance under duress, particularly over long periods of time. Give yourself permission to rest when you can, to move more slowly and to delegate or relinquish “to dos.”


Stressful circumstances are agitating, making it a challenge to relax. If possible, make a conscious effort to access an external stimulus that calms you down. Music, exercise and artistic expression (drawing, writing, knitting, etc.) are just a few examples. When I’m dealing with something deeply upsetting, I typically start cleaning out closets. A loved one of mine used to calm herself by stroking her pet. Whatever you choose let the people around you know that this is “therapeutic” for you, and that you need to be doing this to stay centered.


Odd as it may seem, one of the best ways to get your mind off of your troubles is by serving other people. The ability to positively impact another is empowering… a subconscious reminder that you have the ability to make something good happen. Regardless of what you are dealing with, there is probably someone in your sphere who needs support or assistance. Shifting our focus off of ourselves and onto another provides an almost tangible relief from our own stress. If nothing else, we give ourselves something else to think about for a little while.

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Have you endured a disastrous time? What helped you get through to the other side?

27 thoughts on “When Disaster Strikes”

  1. I think we all have had our moments no matter how much we wish we may not have. For me, what helps is to just feel what I am feeling in the moment. I like to think that time does have a way of easing all wounds at the very least. But again for me, I am not the type of person who can easily just move past something. I will usually need to deal with it head on and if it means obsessing over in the moment so be it. I know whatever it is at the very least once I allow myself to feel what I need to, it is easier to deal with it and usually move past it if that makes sense.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…4 Easy Ways to Compromise with Picky EatersMy Profile

    1. I love this comment, Janine! It is so important not to try and talk yourself out of your emotions. Some people feel they should be able to always stay positive, but inside they need to grieve or mourn or be angry. Dealing with what we feel in the face of a difficulty is very healthy!

  2. Great post, Seana. I found when I dealt with deaths in the family where I was the executor, collecting data and information and gathering them together either in a spreadsheet or physically helped me wrap my head around what needs to get done and it helped me easily manage the different tasks. For example, when I had to contact all the credit card and bank account companies about the deceased, creating a spreadsheet really helped. I added all the information into it (name, number, account number, address, a column for if I called them, and a column if I completed it.). Creating a priority list helped for larger projects, and then breaking down those priorities into what needs to be done first, second, and third made a huge difference. I felt more in control and could put my emotions aside (and reduce my stress) to focus on the task at hand.

  3. I love your truth statement: “Tragic events are painful and we need to work through them. Forward progress begins when we accept this reality.” It is so important to acknowledge and accept! I am one of those people who withdraws, but thankfully my husband knows enough to draw me out and it’s usually the nudge I need to bring me back to baseline.

    1. Having someone who knows you and will provide a “safe” place to be vulnerable is such a gift! Many people lack a relationship like that. I think it is probably normal to want to try and avoid the pain, but ultimately that just prolongs the healing. I’m sure YOU – the professional – understand this better than I:)

    1. Perhaps now more than ever we all have a way to help someone in need. I just became aware of the opportunity to put together hygiene kits for those in storm ravaged areas. Simple kits in a zip-top bag with a toothbrush, comb, washcloth, hand towel, nail clippers, bandaids and a bar of soap. I thought, “I can do that!”

  4. Well timed post with many disasters. Back to routines, even small ones, can help you. Knowing that you take getting to bed, eating properly, and making a list are small routines that comfort us.

    1. I remember celebrating small victories like these after I had my first child. It felt good to be able to check at least something off a list! Disasters throw us so off balance that even a small measure of control can help us through the day. Hugs to all in the paths of Harvey and Irene!

  5. Great post Seana! I dealt with this right after 9-11 as I lived and worked in Manhattan at that time. As much as I was grieving and my world was turned upside down in many ways, I also needed to get back to my routines. It helped me feel some semblance of order and control in a world that felt very helpless and out of control at the time. And again after my Mom passed away, going into action mode and getting things done that needed tending to in the wake of her death were helpful to me. I think for those of us that are used to being Control Freaks, disasters throw us for a loop in ways that are difficult to handle. We need to do whatever helps us get back on track! Thanks again for a great post.
    Lisa Montanaro recently posted…The Brand Called You: The 5 Word Branding ExerciseMy Profile

    1. I’ve recently been reflecting on the “frenetic” pace of activity after the death of a family member. In some ways, I believe our various rituals and traditions have sprung up to protect the grieving. We long to do something, even though nothing we do can bring back the person we’ve lost. It is stressful to have to manage so many details, but it also gives us something to think about in those initial days, when the wounds are still raw. Thanks for the comment, Lisa!

    1. Going through difficult circumstances is just so unsettling and stressful. I think the stress compounds because we can’t “get away” from the chaos and struggle. It is with us every moment. Whatever we can do to provide a counter balance to that weight is healthy. I’m hoping that the worst is behind you, Susan, and that the upcoming year will bring wonderful, joyful surprises!

    1. My heart goes out to you as you continue to heal and recover from your disaster, Carolyn. Life is just so hard sometimes, and often, even those closest to us weary of supporting us, wanting us to “move on” more quickly. Each of us must travel at our own pace, doing what we can day by day. Whatever we can do to lighten the load and introduce balance and joy as we walk along is worth it. Here is wishing you a better year ahead, with many wonderful joys and surprises!

    1. Calming down is something that we all want to do, but can be hard to force! Even when we try, our minds are racing and trying to solve problems, often even as we sleep. It has been my observation that we all find peace in different ways, and it worthwhile to figure out what makes us feel better. Parents can give their children a gift by helping them to identify this for themselves as well. Just knowing that we have a (healthy) way to recenter is calming. I find I “hang on” better when I can see that relief is within sight.

    1. We are so hard on ourselves. When all of our support systems have been pulled out from beneath us, we should not expect to make our best decisions or perform at peak productivity. Serious life events put us into a bit of shock, so we need to seriously scale back our expectations of everyone impacted.

  6. Wow, this really made me realize how fortunate I am and have been. I’ve already expressed my gratitude for not being directly affected by any of the natural disasters currently going on all around us (hurricanes, wildfires, earthquake) but you’ve also reminded us that disaster takes many forms, and we all face them at times. I will keep your wise words in my heart for the next time I’m going through difficulty.

    1. I wish we all could avoid these situations, but it is inevitable that we will encounter some kind of tragedy along the journey of life. I do believe that we are more understanding and compassionate for situations we have experienced, and perhaps that is the upside of having to go through a difficulty. I too need to remember to be grateful for the stability I experience on any given day. I once read a piece of advice that said, “What if you woke up tomorrow with only those things for which you were grateful today?” Thought provoking, for sure.

    1. Yes, we often just lack the energy to explain ourselves over and over again, especially to people who realistically will not be able to understand. Most people mean well, but they don’t know what to say or do. Conserve your energy, acknowledge their intent, and move on.

  7. Calming agents are key for me. Finish the Sentence Friday is about natural disasters this week. You should link up. Then it will get seen by people specifically thinking about natural disasters and they’ll feel better! They really will!

    1. Great idea, Tamara! Thanks for the tip – calming is key for me too. I’ve just been reading about the Equifax data breach and can feel my blood pressure rising.

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