When a Tornado Blows Through

Barbara A. Bernard

Mother Nature continues to teach us how dramatically our lives can be altered in a matter of minutes. Tornados, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and major floods can change our lives forever. Through them we’re given a chance to learn about our own resilience  and our ability to recover from very difficult and challenging experiences. Everyone involved has an opportunity to discover more about who they are and what matters to them. Priorities are often realigned and reassigned.

In 1964, I was a 12-year-old child living in Anchorage, Alaska, when the Good Friday earthquake struck there. At first, after the earth became still again, my family and I didn’t realize how much our world had changed. It took time for us to comprehend the devastation that was around us. From then on, the earthquake served as a major marker in the timeline of our lives. We spoke of life before the earthquake and life after the earthquake. I reflect on that time whenever I hear news reports about other such events happening somewhere in the world. For those involved, a defining moment has occurred.

Today, when a crisis or natural disaster hits, technology allows people everywhere to know about it almost immediately. Within moments, conversations in distant cities become filled with concern and compassion for those affected. As a result, volunteers show up from surrounding communities and often from across the country to help. Frequently it’s those who have lived through something similar who find ways to go and serve others who are experiencing an event like one they have already survived.

Crisis stretches and strengthens our compassion muscles. Notice how, when rescue workers arrive on the scene to lend assistance, they don’t stop to interview any of those affected to find out if they hold similar beliefs and values before deciding whether or not to help. Rather, in circumstances like these, we human beings help and support one another regardless of any differences. We support life. We serve. It’s what human beings do.

In the wake of storms and loss, many opportunities arise. Even though it is an experience you wouldn’t choose, it is a time when you can thoughtfully contemplate the full range of choices for yourself and your loved ones. Life has changed. Your perspective on life has likely changed as well. There is potential for assuming a fresh outlook. It is possible to see differently—or not.

Here you have a choice of trying to go back to your former self and ways of being or inventing and creating something new for yourself. Recreating the familiar isn’t the only option. You aren’t the same person that you were before the event, and it’s important to allow yourself time to learn who you are now and who you want to be. It’s okay become someone new.

When that which is familiar has been taken away, it is common for us to fear and avoid whatever seems new or foreign. First, we need to grieve the loss of loved ones, a former life, our home, our neighborhood or some other element of our life that we previously felt was solid. Then, through the experience of recovery, we may interact with individuals that we once regarded as “other” —people who held beliefs we didn’t share—but with whom we now have a common experience. Beyond the devastation, beyond the boundaries that may have previously divided us, we can relate as compassionate human beings.

After the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, some people relocated immediately and some stayed to rebuild. Others decided this was an opportunity to redesign their lives. Those people demonstrated that, in time, as we move from grief to recovery, the next step beyond the present can be a move into discovery.

Profound loss changes us. How much it changes us is our choice. What is possible? What might we create? Whom might we serve? What can we envision now? What might we become?