This article was originally published on Psychology Today on March 5, 2019
Strategies for learning to live through times of suffering and hardship.
Fourteen years ago this week, residents of the gulf coast were preparing to celebrate Mardi Gras.
I had just moved to South Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina struck our community.
In 2005, months after the photos and videos featuring the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina had faded from the headlines and were muted from the airwaves, those of us living in South Mississippi continued to pick up the pieces of the historic disaster. In fact, six months after Katrina struck, I was part of a crew that was caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of survivors.
After a long day of heart-wrenching conversations, I was invited to attend a potluck dinner with a group of local survivors. The residents of this particular community had once lived in a prestigious neighborhood lined with stately colonial homes that had been passed from one generation to the next.
However, in March of 2006, many of the community’s residents were still living in FEMA trailers.
As our group walked toward a makeshift gathering place where we’d share a meal together, I surveyed the trailers that had been decorated in bright purple and gold in anticipation of Mardi Gras. Some of the horizontal cylinders that had become “home” were lined with glowing green and purple lights. Giant sparkle-covered masks and other seasonal decorations were plastered on the otherwise blank exterior walls. In true southern fashion, some had even built out small front porches off the front of their FEMA trailers, complete with Mardi Gras beads hung amongst some trees still standing.
The community had celebrated before Katrina, and they were celebrating after Katrina.
Several years later, at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, and this time I was ground zero of my own personal disaster.
After Katrina, I had observed that the ones who learn to endure and keep living during hardships are those who are able to establish a “new normal.” I found the same to be true as I battled cancer. And while the process of finding a new normal will look different for everyone, there are a few strategies that can help.
Whether you’ve lost your home or your health or your happiness, you choose to keep living by continuing the traditions that grounded you before the disaster. For Gulf Coast residents, this meant that purple, gold, and green pennant flags flapped in the wind. For some, it might mean maintaining a Friday evening tradition of “pizza night.” And for others, it might even mean gathering around an iPad to watch a sports game together. Maintaining old rhythms helps us rediscover normalcy.
One of the traditions my family had started a few years prior to my diagnosis was going to the Brookfield Zoo shortly before the start of a new school year. By the time August rolled around after my diagnosis, I was well into chemotherapy and radiation treatments that had left me fatigued. But I was determined to try and keep the tradition going for my three young daughters. After about 20 minutes, I could barely walk because of how fatigued my treatments had left me. Once we realized I had overestimated what was possible on foot, I ended up renting and finishing out our trip on an electric scooter. Though we still had to cut our trip shorter than the years prior, we still had a meaningful day, and found comfort in the familiar.
Create New Rhythms
My disaster work taught me that life rhythms are important not just to preventing burnout among first responders, but also to living well through times of adversity. I regularly tried to remind disaster relief professionals and volunteers responding after Katrina to learn to pace recovery efforts: to think of disaster response and recovery as a marathon, not a sprint, because those affected by the hurricane needed them now, but they’d also need them later. And if they were going to be able to help them, they needed to have enough in the “tank” to still be effective. For many, this meant learning to create new life rhythms.
When I was battling cancer, and we’d all had a particularly rough week, my wife Kelly suggested that we go around the dinner table and answer the question, “What was the best part of your day?” That’s how our family established a new rhythm of gratitude that would help us weather life’s storms. Some families celebrate “Cancer-Free” day on the same anniversary each year. And one family who lost a loved one began the annual tradition of having a picnic at the grave of the young adult son they’d lost each year on his birthday. Creating new traditions helps establish a new equilibrium.
Many of those I saw clearing debris and putting up fresh drywall were those who’d suffered loss themselves. While they were still rebuilding their own lives, they were helping neighbors rebuild theirs. When we’ve suffered loss, offering ourselves to others helps us continue to be the people we were before disaster struck. Sometimes it may mean the physical work of restoring dwellings. Other times it might mean offering respite to a family caring for an infant or a person with a disability on top of the disaster they’ve suffered. And it might be as simple as the mac and cheese you bring to the potluck. Serving others takes our eyes off of our own suffering as we care for those around us.
After my major cancer surgery, I was bedridden for about a month, and I struggled to think clearly because of the incredible pain I was experiencing. Right in the midst of the worse of it, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. The institute I founded had been there without me helping prepare community leaders to build disaster resilience and collaborations. As I heard the news, I had an incredible sense of wanting to help, but quickly abandoned any hopes of helping as my pain worsened. But over the course of the day, I took advantage of the occasional good hour here and there and was able to piece together and publish a brief article on how to help disaster survivors from far away. Though I couldn’t physically help like I might have in the past, I was still able to help in this small way.
Carve Out Time to Do What is Life Giving
When disaster hits, life can feel chaotic, and our energy is used up fighting fires. But when the flames die down, it’s important to make space to do some of the things we once enjoyed doing. One woman with limited physical endurance switched up her running routine with a friend to create a regular weekly walk together. A man who enjoyed carving used fallen limbs to continue his hobby. Someone else found a way to keep a regular coffee date with her sister. Doing what you love keeps you grounded after a disaster.
As best as I could, I tried to stay active and do what was life-giving. I did what I could to try and carve out new ways to stay connected to what had brought me joy. I rarely had the strength to leave the house, but I could still spend time with my wife and daughters at home. It was difficult to get out to enjoy my favorite coffee shop, but sometimes a friend would pick up coffee and bring it to my house. I could rarely work, but every once in a while, I could write a few paragraphs. I couldn’t go enjoy live music, but I could still listen to jazz in bed. In fact, I ended up watching the entire Ken Burns "History of Jazz" documentary over the year I underwent treatments.
When I encourage survivors of disaster and those who find themselves amidst cancer to return to what they were doing prior to impact, I don’t mean that everything will return to the way it was. But I’m convinced that people do benefit from carving out calm in the chaos. So, no matter what you might be facing, purpose to discover your new normal.
Maybe even with twinkly purple Mardi Gras house lights and beads.