How to Cope When Tragedy Strikes

If you live long enough, you will likely experience a tragedy that will cause some level of trauma to you personally. But do you know how to cope when tragedy strikes? Many people are not equipped with knowledge of what to do when they experience tragedy.

I am just as challenged in dealing with tragedy as you are; I am not immune to the related trauma. Unfortunately, I speak with some experience on the subject. Here is one particularly painful memory:

It was Monday, December 13, 1982. I was a young adult. In preparation for Christmas, I headed off to the mall with my brother. While I was away shopping, the police arrived at my home. They asked my parents where I was, explaining it was very important that they meet with me right away. My confused parents asked what was it about, but the police simply stated that they needed me to go to the police station as soon as I returned.

Naturally, my parents were extremely concerned about why the police wanted to see their son and why they would not disclose the reason for their visit. When I returned home, my parents literally ran from the home to my car to tell me about the police request. I was just as bewildered.

As I opened the police station door, my emotions were barely in check. I was desperately trying to figure out what this could be about. Nothing made sense to me; it felt surreal.

As the officers escorted me downstairs to an interrogation room, I tried to use humor to relieve the tension. It was clear that the stern-faced officers did not appreciate my attempts at levity. I had never experienced such solemn intensity as the two officers displayed that day. I was scared.

The interrogation room had four brick walls, a table, and three chairs. As the interview began, the officers asked me about my relationship with a girl named Carol. Carol had been my high school girlfriend and my graduation date. Since she had returned from college, the two of us had started dating again, progressing toward a “steady” status.

After a very long, uncomfortable moment of silence, one of the officers leaned toward me, stopping just a foot from my face. “Ken,” he said quietly but firmly, “Carol was brutally beaten and murdered last night.” I was either the last or the second-last person to talk with her before she died.

During a sexual advance that Carol rebuffed, the janitor at her place of work had beaten her to death. He was caught and arrested several weeks later. Only 22 years old, Carol was projected to be one of the first women combat pilots in the Canadian military.

I couldn’t believe it. Everything in me wanted to deny that this event had happened, but no matter how hard I lived in denial, the reality was still there: Carol was gone. For a long time, I felt guilty that I was not there to protect her. I admit that even now, some of my ability to fully engage emotionally has been forever lost.

Nothing can prepare someone for this type of trauma.

There are thousands of similar stories happening every day, around the world. But even under such terrible emotional stress, everyone, including you, has a choice:

1. One is to let the tragedy overtake you completely, thereby creating further tragedy, and an ensuing life of negativity and turmoil.

2. The other is to turn tragedy into something positive—something greater than the event itself.

Here are some examples of these choices. The first example demonstrates the first option, while the rest demonstrate the second option—turning tragedy into something positive.

  • One of my friends was killed in a car accident at age 16. The teenager’s mother was never able to recover emotionally. She kept her son’s room the same, even five years later. Her grief traumatized her to the point that she abandoned her other son, who, 10 years later, committed suicide.
  • One father’s seven-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered by a sexual offender. The father, John Walsh, pushed through his grief to create the America’s Most Wanted TV show.
  • An athletic young teenager was paralyzed in a traffic accident. He could have felt sorry for himself and let his life pass him by. Instead, he chose to wheel around the world in the Man in Motion Tour. Rick Hansen is now a Canadian hero.
  • A local man’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. He dedicated his life to changing the laws that had let the offender off with just 16 months’ jail time. A new law that increases jail sentences for drunk drivers is now on the books.
  • In a freak accident, a teenager drove over his friend, killing him. Despite their pain, the parents of the deceased teen forgave the boy for what happened. In fact, a few years later, after the boy lost his own mom and dad, the parents adopted the boy as their own.

The intent of this ezine is not to make light of the impact that tragedy can have on anyone or on the trauma that naturally follows. But I want my words to encourage you that the human spirit is resilient and at its best when it is serving others.

I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish, but I hope that out of a tragedy like this, something good will come. I hope we understand we’re one family.

Madeleine Albright
Making Sense of the Unimaginable
Author and U.S. Diplomat

In the Action Steps below, I will outline strategies and thoughts on how to deal with tragedy.

  1. Don’t think you are alone—tragedy can and does happen to people every day around the globe.
  2. Allow yourself to go through the process of feeling and dealing with the wave of emotions that hit when tragedy strikes—including denial, anger, hatred, sadness, depression, emptiness, cynicism, guilt, and hopelessness. This will lead you toward healing and recovery. (After Carol’s murder, I experienced all these emotions at some point, and it was all part of the grieving process.)
  3. Forgive the person who has caused your pain (if applicable). This could be one of the most difficult steps. I could write an entire ezine on forgiveness. People must forgive each other, not to condone their actions, but rather to free themselves from debilitating negative emotions.
  4. Don’t allow tragedy to lead for further tragedy, as in the situation with my friend’s mother. Please don’t let this happen to you or others. At some point, you must move on. That doesn’t mean you forget or that you have finished experiencing every emotion, but that you are taking steps forward—no matter how small.
  5. Turn tragedy into triumph. Get out of your own head, and look at how you can contribute practically. Not everyone will start a TV show or become a hero, but there may be a cause you can help with, or someone who can benefit from your help.
  6. Look for support from others who have had similar experiences. There are many groups and organizations for most types of trauma. If no such group exists for the particular trauma you have experienced, consider starting one yourself.
  7. Remember that many success stories have come about directly from tragedy. How many more people would have experienced trauma if John Walsh had not pushed to have hundreds of the most-wanted fugitives taken off the streets? Tragedy has been a catalyst for some of mankind’s greatest moments and achievements.

Another one of life’s major tragedies happens when individuals are not living their purpose or contributing at their highest possible level.

Until then, keep Living On Purpose!

Ken Keis, Ph.D.
CRG Consulting Resource Group International, Inc.

Author Bio

Ken Keis, Ph.D., President of CRG, is a global expert on leadership, wellness, behavioral assessments, and life purpose. In 28 years, he has conducted over 3000 presentations and invested 10,000+ hours in consulting and coaching. Ken Keis is considered a foremost global authority on the way assessment strategies and processes increase and multiply success rates. He co-created CRG’s proprietary development models and has written over 4 million words of content for 40 business training programs and 400+ articles. His latest book, The Quest For Purpose: A Self-Discovery Process To Find It And Live It!,is available at

Posted in Wellness.