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HETRICK: Like natural disasters, aftershocks of grief linger

March 6, 2010

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Turks and Caicos. One morning, I grabbed a book and beach chair, plopped down in the shade of some shore-side plants, kicked off my flip-flops, and listened to the waves while I read.

After a while, I felt more than warm sand on my right foot. I looked down and saw hundreds of tiny ants racing to and fro. Seems I’d parked myself near a bustling colony.

Without thinking, I kicked the sand and the critters off my foot. Then I kicked more sand away, clearing a deep and wide swath around me.

I went back to my book. I also went on a guilt trip, having played God and shaken some tiny creatures’ world.

An hour or so later, I was glad to see the ants rebuilding a few feet away.

Back in January, our human world was shaken when a massive earthquake struck Haiti.

With too many people crammed into too small a space, with poor building standards and lax enforcement, with poverty run rampant and government ill-prepared for a crisis, the death toll climbed to the hundreds of thousands. Even more were injured. Aftershocks continued for weeks.

Despite a massive global relief effort, recovery and rebuilding will be long and difficult.

On Feb. 27, an even bigger quake hit off the coast of Chile. A tsunami warning was issued in 53 countries across the Pacific. More than 100 aftershocks were recorded in the hours and days that followed.

Like Haiti, disaster struck in a seismically active part of our planet with a history of destructive earthquakes. But Chile is less densely populated than Haiti. It is more affluent. Its government appears better-equipped. And it seems to have learned from past quakes. Indeed, its building standards saved lives.

As a result, the death toll from this stronger-than-Haiti quake is, so far, in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands. Recovery will be costly and time-consuming, to be sure, but not daunting, as in Haiti.

One other blessing: The feared tsunami struck seriously in only one part of Chile. The rest of the Pacific nations, in the words of Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, “dodged a bullet.”

Five years ago this week, I took figurative bullets to the head and heart. My personal Richter scale was shaken more violently than by any tremor ever measured on any anthill, or Port-au-Prince or Concepción.

The emotional quake triggered by the death of my love tumbled towers within me, shook our friends and family, and rattled our colleagues and clients.

What I did not foresee was the aftershocks that would echo for years, and the tsunami that would long swell my seas.

“I suspect that grief is worse than death,” writes author Lisa Unger. “When someone you love has died, it’s almost impossible to get your head around it. The totality of it, your utter helplessness against it, makes you feel as if you could burst into flames from sheer emotional agony.”

But alas, like Haiti and Chile, we build and rebuild our loves, lives and fortunes on fault lines. We grow anthills into sand castles. We erect walls, hoist barriers and post guards to ward off danger.

Yet invariably, owing to death or disease, or a downturn in the economy, or human failing or acts of God, the earth shifts beneath us, the aftershocks rumble and the waves rush in.

Last month, I got a call from a woman asking if I’d speak to supporters of her not-for-profit grief-counseling organization. She wanted to know what I’d learned of grief.

The question gave me pause, for having been shaken by it, and having lived with it, I’d not paused to analyze it.

But here’s how I’d answer:

I’ve learned of grief that it is not momentary. The aftershocks remind us of our loss and vulnerability. And they last a long time.

Grief is not isolated. Its tremors are felt far and wide. It triggers tsunamis that strike far away, long after the initial shock—and often in devastating ways.

Grief is the sibling of aloneness and loneliness. These are not easily alleviated, even by the presence of others.

Grief can cast its shadow even in the bright light of resurrected love and hope. But while it may walk side-by-side, it need not eclipse love and hope.

We can learn from grief. To persevere and prosper even in the face of peril and loss. To move further from the fault lines that render us more vulnerable. To rebuild on a stronger foundation. To shore up the support systems that safeguard us from devastation. To be better prepared for inevitable crises. And to celebrate the joy of each moment.

The earthquakes will come. We’ll be shaken. But we can and will rise again.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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