Ways to Cope With and Survive a Crisis, Breakdown, or Grief
People experience times of calamity, catastrophe, mental and/or emotional breakdown, overwhelming grief, or incapacitating depression, or other devastating events and times. You suddenly experience loss, death, betrayal, extreme change, disappointment, having to move, the loss of a pet—any of these events can undo and unravel us to one degree or another.
Maybe you saw the calamity coming but had no idea how much it would hurt. Maybe you never saw it coming. Maybe you deserved the pain, or you didn't deserve it all, but either way you still have to struggle to cope and survive each day—and the future seems pointless.
There are so many various trials and calamities, but a common feeling these trials can give us is, "This is too much, this is more than I can handle, I don't think I can make it, I don't think I will ever feel normal again."
I have experienced some of these losses and devastations. I have been stuck and felt the shadow of hopelessness. There was a time in my life when I had to be very intentional about not looking at my gun cabinet because the thoughts in my mind were so dark. But I recognized my downward spiral and discovered ways to cope and survive. This article is about getting unstuck and surviving those days and seasons when each day is just a push to get through. I have been a pastor at three different churches in three different states for a combined 22 plus years, and I have seen these strategies and actions help both myself and many people in my community to survive catastrophe and tragedy.
Be With People, Do Not Isolate Yourself
The person who says, "I can do this myself," or "I don't want to talk to anyone, I can handle this," will struggle to survive. No matter how much you want to isolate and bury yourself in your pain you have to choose to be with people, make yourself be around people. There is safety and hope in surrounding yourself with healthy people to get through trauma. You physically know you are not alone.
When we isolate, we can reinforce that voice that tells us we are all alone, no one understands, no one knows, no one cares, and no one can help us. Choose to be with people. Call someone. And if you are a person wanting to help someone else survive a crisis don't just say, "Call me anytime, call me if you need to," because they usually won't. If you really want to help someone survive a crisis, you take the initiative and decide you are going to call and check on them every other day, because the person in crisis usually doesn't have the strength or will to call you.
If you choose to be alone in your trauma your mind may just keep spinning on the events of your crisis, and you just keep sinking. You will find yourself sinking in bitterness, anger, envy, or self-pity. In order to survive, choose to make yourself be with people. Attempt to let their joy and normalcy rub off on you. If their kids are doing great, or they are rejoicing in a new relationship, let their joy be your joy.
A warning. Avoid people who are just going to "talk at" you and try and "fix" you. Find the gentle, compassionate person who is willing to listen and feel with you. Run away from or just hang up on the person who is adding to your pain by "talking at you" and trying to fix you, because those people will unintentionally do more harm than good. Find the person who will just listen and not interrupt—or not even try and offer any counsel but offer only their love and companionship.
Got No Hope for Yourself? Find a Person Who Has Hope for You
There have been times I have been so low, depressed, and/or traumatized I have had no hope or faith to survive and get through the trial. If you find yourself in such a place, don't condemn yourself, you're not alone. Fnd someone who will verbally tell you the words, "You are going to be ok," or "you are going to survive this!" Find someone who believes you are going to recover. Find someone... whether it be a pastor, therapist, parent, neighbor... find someone who will tell you that you are going to come through.
During one of my hard seasons, an uncle pulled me aside and gave me such a talk. He told me about a certain day during the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War when most of the men in his unit were killed. He told me about experiencing the slow death of his wife to cancer. He told me he never thought he'd survive and recover from those days and times—but he did. Then he looked at me and told me I too was going to recover. I was not all better when he said that, but his words stayed with me and gave me hope. My uncle's words of life and encouragement counter-acted many of my negative thoughts and gave me a little faith.
Find Someone Who Has Been Where You Are
During a certain trial in my life I had thoughts like, "no one understands, no one knows what it feels like." But then I met a man named Tom who had also been a pastor. We shared our stories and experiences. While I was listening to his story and I heard him recounting experiences and feelings that were very similar to mine, hope just flooded my heart. I was not alone. I had thought I was crazy—but listening to Tom I realized that although I was in great pain, I was also sane. Tom was on the other side of a dark season, and I still was in the dark, but hearing his story gave me hope. I know none of our stories are exactly alike, but finding and hearing someone who survived a similar crisis to yours will give you hope.
Write Out Your Crisis
Sit down and write out the crisis you have or are experiencing. Writing your story out helps you see the crisis, feel it, and perhaps most importantly helps you accept the reality of your trauma, grief, or pain. You won't heal or recover until you accept the painful reality of the pain that has happened. Writing helps you think your way through what you have or are experiencing and put your feelings on paper or screen.
I have written poems about certain trials or hard seasons. I often journal. You can buy a journal at dollar store or office supply store, and each day you chronicle your way through your tough season. You can write your story or journal in the first or third person. You can address your paper or journal to yourself, another person, or God. If you write to another person, you may or may not deliver it to them; it can be just for you.
Repeat the Truth Out Loud to Yourself
Having suffered a crisis or going through a hard time we often hear a tape recorder in our minds. The tape recorder usually has very discouraging things to say to us. "If only you had....," "Why didn't you stop....," "No one cares...," "There is no way to ever live again..." I would encourage you to never verbalize these negative thoughts except in the presence of a person who is empathetic and will help you work through them. Instead try to repeat life-giving truth to yourself, even when your emotions are screaming the opposite.
- I did all I could
- It wasn't all up to me
- I am seeking and giving forgiveness
- This hurts so much but I am going to live
There was a Bible verse that encouraged me through a tough time. It was Psalm 100:5, "For the Lord is good, His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness is to all generations." On certain days when depression would threaten to overwhelm me I would just say that verse, out loud, over and over, sometimes for 20-25 minutes, until the good words of the Bible verse pushed back on my dark thoughts and gave me light in my soul.
Don't Make Big Decisions by Yourself
A friend once told me, "Don't make any major life decisions right now." I didn't listen to him, and paid a heavy price. When we are in pain or grief we desperately want to do something radical to escape the pain and find relief. We think a major life change such as quitting a job, moving, or a major financial move will be the way to find relief. The "major life change" appears on the horizon of our minds and gives us unrealistic hope and the promise of less pain. But this is the time to talk to cooler heads around you whom you trust to tell you what you don't want to hear. Don't make big decisions by yourself in a crisis. Find at least 1-2 people you trust who will review your decision before you make it. You are not always, or rarely, rational and clear-headed when you are suffering, so don't make major decisions all by yourself. Ask a friend, ask your boss, ask your parents, your doctor, someone you respect and trust.
Re-Establish Order and Daily Routine
So you have had a life catastrophe. Your life fell apart or is still seeming to fall apart. But today is a new day, there is always a new day to start over. Order, routine, and goals will help you recover.
You may have to exert your will, you may not have the energy, but I gently encourage you to re-establish or introduce some order and routine back into your life. You have experienced something unpredictable, painful, and out of your control. Order and routine help us re-establish predictability, normalcy, and some control. Re-establishing order and routine indicates we intend to survive and grow again. Routines eliminate your need to make big plans or think too much, and that's why they are a help to you in coming through a trauma.
- I will go to bed at 10 p.m.
- I will make my bed in the morning
- I will pray as soon as I wake and as I lay down at night
- I will do the laundry as soon as the basket is full
- I will watch "Jeopardy" every night
- I will cook and eat dinner at 6:30 each night
Make a list. Making lists may be helpful for you. When faced with unexpected unemployment I got in the habit of making a list each night so I had some goals and tasks to focus on for the next day, instead of just having to deal with the vacancy of unemployment.
Goals. Set goals, Set realistic and attainable goals. By setting goals you are saying, "I intend to live, I have reasons to live, I am going to survive and have a good future worth living for."
- I will call or visit my dad every Sunday
- I am going to find a church home
- I am going to run 3x a week
- I am going to join a recovery group
- I am going to take up a new hobby
Clean or fix something. Another way to start to heal might be cleaning or fixing something that has long needed cleaning or repair. I don't know how to explain this one but I've seen it work in my own life and others. A house I was renting had a garage that was just a mess, and every day I hated looking at it. One Saturday I spent about 5-6 hours just throwing stuff away, moving everything out, cleaning it up, and bringing order to that garage. It was therapy, I felt better on the inside after that.
Ask for Help
Ask for help. Ask someone for help. You may start to feel better even making the effort to ask for help. Don't stuff it in or try to recover on your own.
- Ask God for help
- Ask a parent for help
- Ask a co-worker for help
- Ask a recovery group like AA or CR for help
- Ask the VA for help
- Ask your doctor or a therapist for help
Choose to Live, Survive, and Recover
Choose to live. Some days you will see or feel no hope but know you are not alone and you are not the first. Hold on. Make a phone call. Establish a new routine. Choose one or two of the ideas in this article—and survive and heal.