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Picking Up the Pieces: Ending Isolation After a Natural Disaster


Here is some really practical suggestions for ending isolation after a natural disaster. There are a lot of good ideas that are applicable in the work to end the isolation and loneliness of anyone.

“Many people who survive a disaster experience a strong desire to separate from others. They withdraw, even from the people they are closest to. It’s hard to face people when even a casual “How are you doing?” can be difficult to answer. But ongoing avoidance of family, friends, and strangers can make everything harder for everyone. It’s an odd irony that we’re most likely to turn away from people right when we need them most. Overcoming the tendency to isolate takes real strength and discipline. These guidelines may help.

There are ways to break the isolation:

* Talk
* Ask for help
* Be with people


It takes courage to reveal what you are thinking and feeling to someone else. This can be especially true when you are feeling ashamed or if you believe you aren’t supposed to talk about your feelings or troubles. But talking is worth it. Talking can strengthen relationships, clear up misunderstandings, and bring other perspectives to our problems….

Make a list of four things you’d like to talk about. Look at your list and see which one feels safest to talk about. Think of one person you trust enough to talk with about that one issue and then talk to that person.

When you don’t talk, other people try to guess what you’re thinking and feeling. This can result in serious misunderstandings that can have disastrous outcomes. For instance, a wife could think her husband is considering divorce; a child could think her dad doesn’t love her; a son could think his dad is going to leave them.

Think of someone you know who is not talking with you. Write down what you think that person is thinking, feeling, and planning. Read what you’ve written to the person who has isolated him-or herself.


Research shows that people who see being able to ask for help as a strength come through disasters stronger and healthier than those who view seeking help as a weakness.

Some people say they are “too proud” to ask for help. Yet even those people probably have asked for help at one time or another. Somehow when a crisis occurs we can forget there are people ready and willing to help us. Do the exercise below to remind yourself of all the people you know whom you could call on for help.

1. In each of the following situations, list someone you could go to for support. What kind of support would you want from them? What response could you expect?
* Your car won’t start and you absolutely must be at work (or a meeting or an appointment) in 30 minutes.
* You are alone at home and become extremely ill (alarmingly, deathly ill).
* It is 10 p.m. and you are returning home from a distant town. You are still 80 miles from home when your car breaks down.
* Your spouse is out of town. The school calls you at work to tell you your child was injured in an accident.
* You are very upset about the loss or impending loss of (your job, a loved one, a pet, your farm, your home).
* You need to borrow $1,000.
* You have to leave home for a week to take care of an ailing relative. You can’t take your children with you.
* You need advice about family problems.
* You receive a wonderful piece of news and want to share your joy.

2. Are there certain people or places you go to when you are feeling down? List them.

3. Are there certain people or places you go to when you are feeling up? List them.

4. You now have a list of friends and family who could help you in a variety of ways.

We probably ask for help from our friends, family, and neighbors more often than we realize. We ask for help with baby-sitting, bringing in the crops, moving to a new home, building a deck. It isn’t too much to expect that those same friends, neighbors, and family members who help us on a day-to-day basis may be very willing to help us during times of crisis. Look at your list and mark the names of people you would feel most comfortable about asking for disaster-related help.

With your family, make a list of all the ways your friends and family have helped you over the past few months. This can be a small task, like driving your kids to a ball game, or a large task, like helping you paint the house.

Can you see a history of support from certain people? Can you call on them now? Most people call first on family when they need help. But friends, neighbors, and local community agencies or churches can also be there for you. To realize how much support is available, consider the following types of help that can be readily given by family, friends, neighbors, and local agencies.

* Tangible help: Food, money, clothing, housing, or services such as child care, household repairs, or help with transportation.
* Emotional support: Someone to talk to and to share your fears and hopes.
* Information: Help to decide what your options are, where you can turn for assistance to rebuild.
* Companionship: People who just make you feel better, who make you laugh or who share your hobbies and interests.

With your family, make a list of all the areas in which you need help and support. Pick one area from the list and discuss it with your family: What do you need now, next week, and during upcoming months. Where you will find help: from friends, extended family, public agencies, your church. Which family members will make the contacts needed to get you the help you require?

The checklist on the next page will help you decide where to go for assistance. Put an “X” in each area where you can get support. For example, you may mark “spouse” for emotional support and companionship, “counselor” for emotional support and information, and “other relatives” for tangible aid.

Sources of Support:
of Support: Tangible Help Emotional Support Information Companionship
Other Relatives
Work Associates
Church Members
Social Service Agency
County Extension Office
Which of these supports would you or your spouse use?


Things won’t return to normal overnight. You and other family members may now be in the habit of isolation. To end your isolation, recognize what you and/or others do to cut yourself off from friends and family.

Isolating behavior can be anything that builds walls between you and your family or you and your community, including:

* Not talking
* Avoiding your regular routines, like going to the cafe for coffee, to church, or shopping
* Avoiding friends and family
* Refusing invitations that you would ordinarily accept
* Refusing support when it is offered

You have survived a disaster. That doesn’t mean your life is over or that you don’t deserve to be happy again. Get back to doing things you enjoy with friends and family. Re-establish the routines of your life. Make commitments and keep them.

Make a list with your family of:

* How you isolate yourself
* How you see other family members isolating themselves
* How you can encourage each other not to isolate yourselves
* What you can do to have fun together and with friends Which of these activities will you do first?
* When will you resume your regular habits again, such as going to church, calling your family, and seeing your friends?

Helping people who have isolated themselves

People who isolate themselves often need an incentive to get back into social routines. Think about what routines they have dropped that you could help them recover. Can you pick them up for church? Drive them to the grocery store? Meet them for coffee?

Think of someone you know who is isolating himself. Make a list of what you could do to help him get back into his or her routine. Commit to doing at least one of those things this week.

People who have isolated themselves are very likely to need help and are very unlikely to ask for it. Helping someone through a crisis may require that you offer help several times and that you be there when your friend is ready to accept your help. Isolated people may not respond the first time you offer your assistance. Don’t give up. Keep offering help. To get ideas on how you might help others, think about the way you yourself have been helped.

Think about the last time someone helped you. Write down:

* Who helped you
* What they did to help

Now think of someone you know who needs help. List specific ways you could help them. Commit to doing at least one thing this week.

Be a good listener

In the video, Craig is upset because his friend, Bob, won’t talk to him about his problems. Frustrated, Craig says: “He doesn’t have to spill his guts, but he could say something. I mean, I’d like to help.”

But maybe Craig isn’t available enough for Bob to feel comfortable to talk to him. If Craig drops by once a month expecting Bob to bare his soul on the spot, Craig might be expecting too much.Getting an isolated person to share his thoughts and feelings may take time and some finesse. If Bob is not accustomed to talking about his problems, it may be difficult for Craig to draw him out. Here are some tips on getting people to talk and being a good listener.

Craig can gently ask Bob one question or a series of questions about how he is feeling, such as:
“How did you feel when……..happened?”
“How did it affect you?”
“How is your family doing?”

Bob might answer with only one word like “Awful.” The conversation could end there, or Craig might encourage Bob to continue talking by saying:
“Then, what?”
“What about today? How is it going now?”

Once Bob does start to talk, however, Craig’s only job is to listen and to encourage Bob to continue to talk. Just by listening, he’ll show he cares and is sympathetic. Later, when Bob has gotten through expressing his fears and pain, he may be ready to look for solutions. At this point, Craig could offer advice. Advice may be worthwhile, but only after the other person has had an opportunity to talk out his or her feelings.

If Bob falls silent for a while, don’t worry, just wait it out. Craig could give him the time in silence to think of how he wants to respond. Most people are uncomfortable with silence, but it gives our friends the opportunity to gather their thoughts and the courage to say what they want to say. It also gives them the freedom to choose whether they want to discuss their situation further.

At some point, Bob may say something like “It’s really hard.” Now is a good time for Craig to let Bob know he understands. Saying “I know just how you feel” is rarely helpful, but Craig’s stating how he thinks Bob is feeling can be very helpful, as long as Craig is really listening and not simply making up emotions for Bob.

When Craig does the things noted above, he is practicing reflective listening. Before you call on a friend to offer support, practice reflective listening.

Practice reflective listening with the following situations. The goal is simply to provide an understanding response in order to encourage the speaker to continue talking. You might practice it with a partner to see if your response is helpful. For each situation, first identify the feelings of the speaker. Second, summarize the situation.


Bob: “Things are really hard. I don’t know what to do to make them better.”

Craig: “You are feeling overwhelmed (identify feeling) because you’ve gone through a terrible experience and you don’t know what to do.” (identify situation)

A man: “I can’t face my father. He just won’t understand why I lost money in the business.”

Your response: “You are feeling ……. because …….

A child: “I must have done something wrong. No one will talk to me. It must be my fault.”

Your Response: . . .


1. Gottlieb, B (ed). Social Networks and Social Support. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. 1981
2. Hughes, Robert, Jr. Support for Families: The Social Network. Urbana-Champaign IL. University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. 1985
3. Nardi, Peter M (ed). Men’s Friendships. Newbury Park: Sage Publications. 1992
4. Pitzer, Ronald L. Friends in Need Are Friends Indeed. University of Minnesota. Minnesota Extension Service. 1988


Funded by FEMA through the Minnesota Department of Human Services–Mental Health Division, in cooperation with CLIMB Theatre and the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Founded in 1975, CLIMB (Creative Learning Ideas for Mind and Body) is the country’s premiere educational theatre and the pioneer of Instructive Theatre. CLIMB writes, produces and presents plays, classes, videotapes, and other products which empower people to examine and even change their thinking and behavior in ways that benefit themselves individually and society in general.

The Minnesota Extension Service (MES) is the outreach arm of the University of Minnesota that offers research-based information and education. It seeks to enable people to foster full development of youth, adults, families, and communities; to improve our economy, especially the food and fiber section, and to provide effective natural resource management.

Content in this booklet is based on the work of Ronald L. Pitzer, Extension Family Life Specialist, Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota.


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