Coping with a Major Personal Crisis

Someone close to you may have died.

You may have been injured yourself or you may have witnessed the death and injury of others.

Your experience was a very personal one but the following information will help you to know how others have reacted in similar situations.

It will also suggest ways in which you can help healing to occur and how you can avoid some pitfalls.

1. What you may experience


  • Of damage to yourself and those you love
  • Of being left alone, of having to leave loved ones
  • Of ‘breaking down’ or ‘losing control’
  • Of a similar event happening again.


  • Crises show up human powerlessness as well as strength.


  • For deaths, injuries and losses of every kind.


  • For all that has gone.


  • For being better off than others, i.e. being alive, not injured
  • Regrets for things not done.


  • For having been exposed as helpless, ’emotional’ and needing others
  • For not having reacted as you would have wished.


  • At what has happened, at whoever caused it or allowed it to happen
  • At the injustice and senselessness of it all
  • At the shame and the indignities
  • At other people’s lack of understanding and inefficiencies
  • “Why me?”


  • Of feelings, of loss or of love for the other people in your life who have been injured or who have died.

Let down

  • Disappointment for all the plans that cannot be fulfilled.


  • For the future, for better times.


  • Your mind may allow the misfortune to be felt only slowly. At first you may feel numb. The event may seem unreal, like a dream, something that has not really happened. People often see this wrongly as being ‘strong’ or ‘uncaring’.


  • You may find yourself repeatedly dreaming about what happened.


  • A disaster may become the main thing that you think about for a long time. The stress of this and the lack of ability to focus on the here and now may make you more accident-prone.

Alcohol and drugs

  • The extra tension may lead you to increase your intake of substances which you feel dull the pain temporarily. It is important to seek help if this is happening repeatedly.

It is common to have some or all of these feelings after a disaster and you may experience them immediately or some time later. The feelings can be very strong and frightening, especially if a death was sudden or violent, or a body was not recovered, or if many people died. It can feel as if you are losing control or ‘going mad’, but for most people the feelings become less intense over time.

Many people find that crying can give relief but it is also common to have other responses, such as a desire to be alone.

2. Family and social relationships

A crisis can bring people together and lead to new friendships, but it can also create tensions and strains. Some families are able to support one another, but this is not always possible and conflicts can emerge. Relationships between partners can also be affected.

3. Children

Like adults, children appreciate having their thoughts and feelings acknowledged. Children often find it easier to draw or play out events and feelings and it helps them for adults to pay attention and demonstrate an interest in what they are doing. Allowing them to reveal what they think and feel in this way will help them cope.

Children may seem fine one moment, then in great distress and quickly fine again. This can be confusing for adults. It can help children to let them keep to their usual routine, such as school and activities, if they want to. But they may also wish to be included in any family rituals, such as funerals, and participating will help them cope better in the future. It will help if the school knows what has happened.

4. What can help?


  • Attending funerals, returning to the scene, talking to people who know what happened, are all ways in which a situation, which seems ‘unbelievable’ may be made more credible and easier to bear.


  • Many people find it helpful to talk about what happened and how they feel, over and over again. This can be an important part of the healing process.


  • Sharing with others who have had similar experience can help. For some, help with the practicalities of everyday life from caring friends and family is a welcome release and will allow them to focus on the disaster for as long as they need. For others, it is a relief to have ordinary things to concentrate on. Many people say that they want to be asked but would like to choose which approach is most helpful.


  • Some people want to be left on their own. You may also find it easier to be with a few select people than with groups of people who don’t know what has happened.

5. When to seek help

  • If you feel you cannot handle intense feelings or body sensations.
  • If you feel that your emotions are not falling into place over a period of time and you feel chronic tension, confusion, emptiness or exhaustion.
  • If, for a long period, you have to keep active in order not to feel.
  • If you continue to have nightmares and poor sleep.
  • If you have no person or group with whom to share your emotions and you feel the need to do so.
  • If your relationships seem to be suffering badly, or sexual problems develop.
  • If you have accidents.
  • If you continue to smoke, drink or take drugs to excess since the event.
  • If your work performance suffers.
  • If you note that those around you are particularly vulnerable or are not healing satisfactorily.
  • If as a helper you are suffering from exhaustion.

6. Where to find help

  • Your family doctor
  • The Social Services Department of your local Council
  • Cruse National Helpline: 0808 808 1677
  • The Samaritans: 116 123

Your library or Citizens’ Advice Bureau will have the address of these and other organisations that can help you.