On Wildfires, Grief and Gratitude
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
A week ago, a series of wildfires broke out in my homecountry, Greece. Although fires occur every year in Greece and as you are reading this now, probably another fire still roams somewhere, last week was different. These devastating fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, burned down thousands of houses, a whole town is now reduced to ashes, more than 80 people died and even more people suffered severe injuries. Not to mention the huge damage done on nature- the animals that were burned alive and the trees that will take many years to grow again- if the state does decide on reforestation. The casualties and consequences are terrible.
The shock of this tragedy was profound on me- even though I live miles away from my country. My own family countryhouse is really close to one of the areas that were afflicted, an area directly linked to beautiful personal memories and moments, since it was where we always went swimming with my family since I was a child. Upon seeing the devastating pictures of a whole landscape turned into ashes, I felt pain, anger and grief similar to if I would have lost a loved one.
I know that many experienced similar excruciating emotions. Therefore maybe it is a good idea to talk about grief, in an attempt to “normalize” it and understand it a bit better.
Grief and its Stages
Grief is a universal human state about anything that is no more, characterized by overwhelming feelings of sorrow. Grief is not only about people we lose. We mourn the loss of a person, an animal, a place, a landscape, a relationship, or a whole life phase.
Grief comes in waves, in different stages. The well-known model of the Five Stages of Grief (and transitions overall) from Kübler-Ross states that there are overall 5 different emotional stages of grief, that we will briefly discuss below. However, these stages are not distinct, and one may float back and forth in between them until they reach acceptance.
Shock - Denial
At first, you really don’t know what hit you, as the shock is too intense. You may go into denial. This dissociation from reality is actually a defense mechanism, because at first you just cannot process the enormity of what happened, and the irreversibility of the loss. Therefore you automatically numb yourself, in order to protect yourself and not feel the painful reality anymore.
And really, I was in denial. Like my fellow citizens back in Greece, I could not conceptualize what had actually happened, and how was it even possible that such a terrible catastrophe could occur.
Soon I realized I was trapped in some sort of illusion. I was well aware of the effect of the fires, but somehow I had a vague impression at the back of my mind that it would soon be restored into what it was before. As if it wasn’t really real…
As reality slowly sinks in, you may enter the next stage of grief- anger. You feel angry at the loss, at the ones that may be responsible for it, at yourself for not being there with them as much as you would have wanted to- even at the person who abandoned you, if you are mourning the loss of a loved one. This anger is not rational, but a normal response to the shock that you are experiencing. Anger and bargaining -the next stage- are very closely linked to each other.
Another stage of grief is bargaining, that is usually accompanied by strong feelings of anger, despair and hopelessness, as you are trying to understand how the loss could have been foreseen and avoided.
That is the state that you can most of the times observe in the media after such a disaster, where politicians and citizens try to find all the reasons why it occurred, who is really to blame and for what, as the ball of responsibility gets thrown around and displaced between different factors involved as if it were some form of sick tennis game. As if finding the answers will ease the pain or reverse the situation back into normality…
During any type of loss, we may become trapped into “if only” statements… We believe there is a series of things that we could have done differently, in order to have avoided the catastrophe and loss. And they really are such things, most likely. But bargaining brings about guilt and intensify our bereavement, because unfortunately, reality unfolded as it did, despite all those details that we could have done differently, but didn’t…
Depression is perhaps the emotion that is most associated with grief. It is characterized by intense and often overwhelming bouts of sorrow and sadness, despair and hopelessness as the realization that what we lost will never be back starts to really be absorbed in our minds.
Related to the wildfires, as I mentioned a while ago, I was in denial, not fully conceptualizing that the disaster was real- despite seeing it all over the news.
And then it hit me. I suddenly came to the realization, that for wherever the fire roamed, things will never be the same again.
I painfully realized that last year was the last time that I would go to the serene landscape where the sea meets the mountain and enjoy a swim while my gaze got lost in the green beauty of the forest before me. I did not know it back then, but I realize it now.
This would not happen there, under the same circumstances, ever again.
Even if the forest is reborn, this will be at least 20-30 years from now, when I will be in a completely different life stage. Even if the victims manage to restore their burned properties, it will be a really long time before they are healed by the trauma of the disaster, and the images of destruction will not just magically vanish from their memories. For the ones that have lost a relative, a friend or loved one, eventually life will go on as it always does- but their loved one will not come back...
I was shattered by this realization. I am deeply touched by the loss of all those people I don’t know, and the ones I do know personally that were affected by the fires. I empathize with all of those people’s grief, even though my own grief is not related to property, but the natural landscape that was so dear to me and that is now destroyed.
When you will have reached the stage of Acceptance or recovery , this will by no means mean that you will have forgotten about your loss. It will just mean that you will have incorporated and accepted your loss as part of a new reality. This stage means being at peace with your loss. Remembering what you lost will not leave you untouched- but it will not be excruciating anymore to bring it to your mind. Not everyone reaches this stage, unfortunately. In cases of Complicated Grief, the individual may be stuck in between the other stages, and obstructed to move on with their lives.
Gratitude and Appreciation
Trauma leaves real, tangible scars behind. Loss is irreversible. Reality will not be restored to exactly the way it was, ever again.
Eventually though, there will be a new reality, where the loss is incorporated, processed and absorbed. Gradually, you will heal from the trauma. The scar will be there forever, but the wound will not bleed anymore.
And then gratitude enters the picture.
It is easy to feel grateful about what you have when things are going well. Though is it, really? Most of us unfortunately forget it. We take our current reality for granted, unwilling to consider a possibility that it can be taken away from us, at any moment.
I for once did not even imagine that last August would be the very last time I would sit at that beach. Perhaps if I would have imagined such a grave outcome, I could have enjoyed and breathed in the moment even more deeply, maybe I would be even more mindful.
An even greater challenge exists when we try to employ an attitude of gratitude at the face of adversity, pain and loss.
Gratitude may very well be the key to us going through the waves of grief with as less suffering as possible. Gratitude really does promote healing, and helps you with adjusting and moving on.
Pain is not optional, but suffering is.
We are naturally inclined to find ways to reduce suffering and help us on our way into acceptance and adjustment to the new reality, that is the final stage of grief.
In moments of bereavement, it may sound cruel to advise anyone to be instead grateful. It may not only be challenging, but actually seem impossible when faced with a terrible reality. Yet it may be the most significant and caring thing you can do for yourself…No matter how big the loss, being grateful that it is not even worse can indeed make things just a little bit more bearable.
During such a challenging time, damage control is the first priority. You carefully evaluate your losses and try to minimize further damage. The focus is protection and maintenance of resources.
How can one be grateful when they have suffered severe consequences of the disaster, like many of the inflicted victims in Greece?
One friend of mine that lost his family house completely in the fires offered me a moving and wonderful lesson. “They can burn our house down, but they cannot take the memories away”, he posted next to a beautiful photo of his house. This is grateful grief. I truly admired and respected his attitude.
The pain of the loss is unquestionable, but employing an attitude of gratitude of what is still there can bring us soothing.
Counting our blessings does go a long way…
Being mindful and fully present equals appreciating the moment and being grateful. Both mindfulness and gratitude have multiple benefits for our sense of well-being.
Trying to find the positive amidst negativity is challenging, even heartbreaking. However, people that mourn the loss of a loved one may find solace when evaluating all valuable memories they shared with them, all of the gifts that their relationship brought them.
Even the realization to cherish every little moment and appreciate joy while it is still there, because we truly can never know when it will be taken away from us, is a lesson that can often only be learnt through grief. We appreciate light because of darkness...
Coping with Grief
If you find yourself grieving, remember that it is important to acknowledge your feelings, and understand the fact that the experience of grief and the different emotions it entails is unique to every individual. Even if you don’t make sense of certain emotions and reaction you may experience, know that grief is a complicated process. Accept your emotions Don’t hesitate to seek support in your process, and realize that, like everything else in life, this too shall pass. Eventually.
Be compassionate with yourself as you are going through the process of grief, and do not resist whatever emotions come to you. Allow them to come, explore ways and options to comfort yourself, and fully be present in your process.
These traumatic experiences play a major role to who we are- they shape and form us, they instill new invaluable life lessons within us. Pain does make us more humble, more human. It manifests solidarity, compassion, empathy and support to one another.
With the example of the wildfires in Greece, or any other devastating disaster anywhere in the world, we secretly hope that such a thing will not happen again. Yet it will. Pain is an inevitable part of our lives, and without it, we wouldn’t really know what contentment, joy and happiness means.
In the end , loss and grief remind us of our mortality. It is up to us to awaken from the illusion that the meaningful things in our lives will be there eternally- they will not.
It’s time to embrace our lives with a fresh perspective, and start being grateful for each and every waking moment we have.
Life is precious. Cherish it, for everything can change within seconds.