The original version of this article ran Dec. 24, 2017.
The second half of 2017 was marked by a particularly punishing cluster of natural disasters ravaging communities across the United States. From destructive hurricanes to the fires that plagued California, our country was shaken by significant natural devastation and loss.
Some losses are more visible than others. The loss of physical property and accompanying financial woes are perhaps the most obvious, but victims of the recent natural disasters are facing a range of less tangible losses as well, which may prove just as – if not more — difficult to cope with over the long term.
Working on the frontlines of the issue of childhood bereavement – through the New York Life Foundation and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, respectively — we have learned firsthand how “invisible” grief can be, with the potential for long-term detrimental effects on social-emotional behavior and development when it goes unaddressed.
Many insurance professionals are encountering communities and individuals impacted by this year’s natural disasters. By seeking to support those who are grieving losses of all kinds, they can become even more valuable to those who are struggling in these disasters’ aftermath.
Acknowledging “Secondary” Losses
When a natural disaster strikes, loss of property and possessions is often swift and dramatic, creating an immediate crisis for victims. Understandably, typical disaster response efforts tend to focus on meeting basic physical needs in the short term and then, over time, on repairing or replacing what has been lost. Often these efforts neglect to address the grief that so often accompanies all of the physical upheaval.
Yet the deeply felt losses that follow from the “main” physical loss — the “secondary losses” — are incredibly important to address as well.
When someone loses their home, for example, they must not only adjust to the loss of the house itself but also all of the memories that it contained. When they are then displaced from that home, they suffer additional losses, including separation from their neighborhood and community life. Children who are uprooted from their familiar schools, friendships, and routines may feel the impact particularly acutely.
Even those who do not lose their home but live in a community affected by a natural disaster may experience strong feelings of loss, missing the way that their community used to be and the people who have been displaced. At the same time, they may feel “survivor guilt” or dismiss their emotions entirely, reasoning that others have lost so much more.
Post-disaster insurance conversations will naturally center on tangible losses, but it’s important to be aware of the emotional weight and implications that these losses carry. Professionals can demonstrate care by opening the door for more holistic conversations about what clients have lost – regardless of the type or scope of losses they have experienced. Affirming these difficult feelings can go a long way in helping them to know they are not alone.
Loss of Life in a Natural Disaster
In rarer but unfortunately still relatively common cases, insurance professionals will encounter a family or individual who has experienced the death of a close loved one due to a natural disaster — the ultimate loss that a disaster can inflict.
Even under normal circumstances, bereavement is exceedingly painful, particularly since ongoing support is lacking. In the New York Life Foundation’s 2017 bereavement survey, most Americans who lost a parent indicated that it took six years or more for them to move forward after the loss – but support from family and friends most often waned within a mere three months.
Those who lose a loved one in a natural disaster face even more dire conditions. Sometimes more than one person within a family is lost at once. Grief over the loss of a life is often compounded by the other stressors that disasters bring about, including physical displacement and the depletion of financial resources. Additionally, the disaster will have likely disrupted the support systems that could have been available in normal circumstances, as nearby friends and family who would have typically been able to offer care may feel too overwhelmed and burdened themselves.
For these reasons, the mourning process often gets deferred or neglected after a natural disaster – leaving more room for grief “complications” to emerge like long-term depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Insurance professionals who encounter families who have experienced a death during a natural disaster should be sure to not only offer condolences but to continue to provide support well after the loss. Perhaps most concretely, they can help by knowing what bereavement support resources are available in their area so that they are able to provide the right referrals.
New Opportunities to Show Care
Recent natural disasters guarantee that many insurance professionals will continue to interact with affected families and individuals. When they do, they have a real opportunity to make a positive difference at a critical point in clients’ lives by recognizing and honoring the fact that they are grieving a huge range of losses.
That’s when the insurance industry is truly at its best — when it’s able to deliver both financial and emotional support to clients during times of critical need.
—Read I Planned for Widowhood but Got a Lot Wrong on ThinkAdvisor.
Heather Nesle is president of the New York Life Foundation and Dr. David Schonfeld is the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.