8 Tips on How to Cope After Tragedy: My Personal Story

Redefining Home After the Fire

Photo Courtesy: Greg Southam / Postmedia

Photo Courtesy: Greg Southam / Postmedia

It was five months ago on the May long weekend that my family stood on the street watching in disbelief and shock as our house burned. 

Our little family was safe, but our beloved cat was lost, as were most of our possessions.

With the blank slate presented to us, we’ve gradually moved forward together to rebuild our lives over the past few months.

Now, I know what you are thinking…. “what does this have to do with nutrition and a healthy lifestyle?”

This week, as we watched a demolition crew tear down our home, I realized how important it is to consider how we respond to tragedy and sadness in our lives – not only from an emotional and spiritual perspective, but from the perspective of being able to continue with a healthy lifestyle. Tragedy isn’t easy, no matter what form it is in.

There have been some significant things learned from our misfortune and I wanted to share with you (from a wellness perspective) what has helped us persevere.

Although I hope you never need to use this advice, remembering these tips can help you gather your strength to navigate through this difficult time with a clear mind.

1.     Let yourself get closure.

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In the days following the fire, I put on a hazmat suit and roamed through the areas of our home that were safe to do so.  I needed closure.  I needed to see with my own eyes that everything I had was lost. I needed to say goodbye to my beautiful kitten Sasha. (Her body was still lying under our bed. She passed away there from smoke inhalation as she was hiding and scared from all the commotion of the firemen running through our home that day). I needed to see the damage and to accept the fact that what was ruined could not be recovered. My husband and ten-year-old daughter did the same. Finding closure was important to help us complete acceptance of what just happened.

It’s hard to recover until you mourn what you lost – whether it’s a loved one, a pet, the loss of your sense of safety, the loss of your worldly possessions. This is a major life change, and it will take time to heal. Closure allows you to transition away from what’s finished and helps you to move forward unencumbered and optimistic.

2.     Resilience is about how you recharge. Not how you endure.

In the middle of a crisis, it can become difficult to take care of yourself with so many other worries preoccupying your mind. Through this experience, I discovered that this is a good time to think about personal resiliency, healing and a sense of normality. I found that mindfulness and self-care were crucial.

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When disaster strikes and we are brought to our knees, I believe we come to know who we are and what we are made of. Often, we take a “tough” approach to resilience. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are. However, the very lack of a rest and recovery period is dramatically holding us back from our ability to be resilient.

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It is crucial to stop and take care of YOU! Stay grounded and centred with activities that you enjoy that will help you recharge. Practice proven stress-reduction techniques, such as regular exercise, journaling, yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or listening to music as a way to positively channel anxious energy. Get plenty of rest when possible and maintain a normal sleep/wake cycle.

3.     Get yourself and your family to feel safe.

Home is a place to feel safe and protected with your family.  I was surprised that we didn’t mourn our stuff so much as the loss of “safety” and “comfort” we had felt in the home we loved.

In the days following the fire, we stayed at my husband’s parents house and found we needed very little. A few clothes, a pair of shoes, some toiletries…very few other things seemed as necessary as feeling safe and together as a family.

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Instead of focusing on replacing all that is lost, concentrate on getting back a sense of security for you and your family by communicating and spending time together. You will realize that the big things don’t matter so much.

We realized early in our ordeal that our daughter’s ability to cope was highly influenced by how we, as parents, dealt with our crisis. Because children often look to adults for guidance, support and information, it is important to work toward coping successfully so that you may serve as a positive role model for your children. You are likely their main source of security during this time. Be open to children sharing their thoughts, concerns and ideas. Encourage them to return to their normal routines, including playtime. Be careful not to use your children as a way of venting your fears and worries.

4.     Let others help you.

One of the most amazing things that happened after the fire was the outpouring of love and support from family and friends, even strangers. Neighbours dropped off clothes, put together toiletries for us. We were given small kitchen appliances, furniture was loaned to us, even home décor, and home-cooked meals were dropped off. We were and still are so grateful for these items – they are buying us time before we need to replace them. These outpourings of love lifted us while we struggled with our loss, and we never felt more humbled and loved in all our life. Learning how to accept help was life-altering for us.

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For whatever reason, it seems to be a natural inclination to turn down an offer of assistance. Maybe we don’t want to inconvenience or burden anyone and we tend to answer those offers with “oh thank you, but I’m fine,” even when we aren’t fine. I have now been on both sides of helping – and I will attest that it IS a tremendous gift, both to be helped and to provide help.

Be open to receiving and accept what is given with a grateful heart. When we can learn how to accept help from others, we are giving not only a gift to ourselves, but also a gift to those around us who want to show us love in a tangible and meaningful way.

5.     Be honest about your feelings and emotions.

As a family, we faced many emotions after that fire…sadness, frustration, fear, worry, helplessness. In the end, a lot of these feelings disappeared quicker once we shared them with people and once we allowed ourselves to acknowledge the sense of loss and uncertainty we were feeling.

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When one is faced with traumatic events, it’s not uncommon to react with an avalanche of varied emotions and a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty. The best thing to do is notice that you are feeling that way. Allow yourself to feel bad, cry and release negative emotions in a healthy manner. Give yourself permission to feel good. You can have periods of joy even when coping with loss.

Talk about your ordeal with trusted friends or a professional.

Feelings are part of being alive and making sense of our world. Strong feelings like fear and sadness tell us that things aren’t right. But, these feelings will pass. It is important to realize that, while things may seem off-balance for a while, your life will return to normal.

This is a confusing and emotionally charged time and the sooner you acknowledge these feelings and move forward, the sooner you can rebuild your life and return to normalcy.

6.     Making lemonade out of lemons.

This is an adage I’m sure you’ve heard of all your life. Until I was faced with what looked like the worst nightmare of my life, it really had no meaning for me. But, for some reason, that old adage that I had to make lemonade out of lemons came to me.

I didn’t want this tragedy to defeat me or my family and keep us down. This phrase and the attitude it exudes helped me and my family persevere through the chaos. We stayed focused on the good and the abundant as best we could.

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I cannot tell you when is the right time or what is the right way to “make lemonade out of your lemons”, but I want to plant the seed because the perspective invoked by this saying will help you and your loved ones resolve your grief in the most positive of ways.



7.  Eat a healthy diet.

You wouldn’t think that I’d go through all these tips and neglect some helpful advice on nutrition, would you?

For the first few weeks after the fire, the task of cooking a homemade meal again was discouraging. All of my favorite kitchen tools that I had gathered over the years were lost. My spacious kitchen that I adored was gone.  The last thing I wanted to do was organize a meal for my family.  But, I felt like I needed to feed my soul with food.

We spent a couple of weeks dining out and I instantly noticed my anxiety and irritability levels increase. I wasn't getting the nutrients I needed. That’s when I forced myself to get back into preparing healthier meals for me and my family. This helped us immensely to relieve traumatic stress, boost our energy and improved our outlook.

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The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with traumatic stress. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of traumatic stress. Conversely, eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with the ups and downs that follow a tragic event.

Staying away from mood-altering substances, such as alcohol and other drugs is also important.

8.     Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

I never actually realized the importance of gratitude until that May long weekend we lost everything. Everyday, I am grateful that our outcome wasn’t worse and for me, gratitude has transformed my common days into thanksgivings.

There are many reasons why gratitude is so important. Gratitude shifts your focus from the bad things to the good. And, whatever you focus on, you move towards. With gratitude, you can move from living in a state of lack, to living in a state of sheer abundance in every possible way. The basic behavior of gratitude can help you overcome fear. When we are utterly grateful for everything we have, including our challenges, fear has little place to live in our minds.


Losing a lifetime of possessions is a devastating experience. However, despite what we went through, life is pretty good. For us, this adversity brought a forced simplification of life and an unexpected clarity about what’s really important.

Now that we are somewhat stabilized, the focus has shifted to the future. We’ve slowly and mindfully started to replace some of the items we lost. In the next few months, we will begin to build our new home on the foundation that remains.

We’ve regained a sense of safety, security and comfort and life is moving forward once again.

In Loving Memory of Sasha

In Loving Memory of Sasha

We are grateful to have been given a new start and through all of this we’ve realized that as long as we are together, no matter where we are, it will always feel like home.