Seeing Silver Linings After Catastrophic Loss: Personal Growth, Positive Adaption, and Relationships that Matter

Fig. 21.1
Model for understanding post-disaster family stress adapted from prior work (Marks et al., 2012) based on Hill’s ABC-X Model (1958). A Several of these stressors are discussed in Chaps. 12 and 13 (this volume). B Several resources/strengths are discussed in Chaps. 14 and 20 (this volume). C This chapter (“On Seeing Silver Linings after Disaster”). X Processes and outcomes (see Part 3, this volume)

Hill’s ideas, as we have adapted them in Fig. 21.1, have been further developed by several scholars over the years with a wide range of applications (see Lavee, McCubbin, & Patterson, 1985) . One of these scholars—Pauline Boss, a leading researcher and clinician of psychological stress, crisis, and trauma (see Chap. 15, this volume)—has observed that the Chinese character representing stress/crisis also means opportunity (Boss, 2002) . Similarly, “a crisis, according to the psychological theorist, Erik Erikson, is not a disaster but a choice point…an opportunity for growth” (Marks, Cherry, & Silva, 2009) . From these theoretical viewpoints, profound challenges can potentially yield benefits for at least some of those involved. This statement should not be overextended or misinterpreted to mean that disasters and crises are “positive” in a net sense (e.g., that more good than bad ultimately emerges). It means that in the wake of challenge, trauma, and crisis there are some who find something constructive…a lesson learned, an awareness sharpened, a realization deepened. Is this true, however, for a devastating tragedy with the depth and scope of Katrina/Rita? Maybe it is for people who look for it. In the sections that follow, we present what our participants reported about “silver linings” at least 5 years after the nightmare of August 29, 2005.


In all, 219 individuals participated in a mixed-method study, which is described more fully elsewhere (Cherry, Sampson, Nezat, Cacamo, Marks, & Galea, 2015) . In addition to quantitative measures, participants also responded to seven open-ended questions. Our focus in this chapter is confined to current and former coastal residents’ responses to this one question: They say every cloud has a silver lining and even the most awful events can have positive outcomes. Do you think there are any positive outcomes that can come from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? If so, what are they?

Data were coded using the same team-based qualitative analysis techniques described at length in Chap. 12 (this volume). Using this methodology , three central, emergent themes related to “silver linings” were identified and documented. These themes are presented in the next section. We also provide illustrative (verbatim) excerpts and narratives from former and current residents (see Chaps. 12 and 13, this volume) and where relevant, supplementary quotes from commercial fishers (also current coastal residents) from this research program are provided (see Chaps. 4 and 18, this volume).


Participants’ responses to the silver linings question yielded several insights regarding the processes involved in coping with disasters. Although many lost friends, employment, and their personal possessions (Cherry et al., 2015), most participants did identify positive outcomes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our multiple-team content analysis yielded the following themes from the silver linings question:

  • Theme 1: Personal Growth and Change in Perspective

  • Theme 2: Appreciation for a New Positive Social Environment

  • Theme 3: Relationships with Friends and Family are What Matter Most

These three themes are presented and discussed in turn next.

Theme 1: Personal Growth and Change in Perspective

In Theme 1, we present excerpts from individuals who mentioned “silver linings” related to individual development. This theme is divided into two subthemes: (1) A Change in Attitude: “[Katrina] helped me to become a better person;” and (2) Material Possessions Do Not Ultimately Matter: “I don’t need all of that anymore.”

Subtheme 1: A Change in Attitude: “[Katrina] helped me to become a better person”

The interview question relating to positive outcomes of the storms elicited responses of an introspective nature from several participants like the following:

132 (22-year old male): I felt…before the storm, I was…a pretty selfish person. Everything was there that I needed. You know, it was…everything was convenient. I have or had everything that I ever wanted and needed, you know? Without a question. And I didn’t really think much beyond myself. But then Katrina happens and your life is turned upside down. And, all of a sudden, I’ve got to make sacrifices that I wasn’t used to making. And, that really helped me to become a better person, a more giving person. I feel as though I’ve become a lot more selfless and understanding from Katrina.

Participant 132 recognized that a life-altering event, like a severe natural disaster, can be a catalyst for personal growth and humility. He specifically mentioned that being forced to sacrifice in the wake of the storms helped him to become “a more giving person” and also “more selfless and understanding.” By having many of their personal possessions and their previous way of life snatched away, many of our participants were motivated or even compelled to combine resources and serve other people in an unprecedented way.

Other participants reported that they felt immense gratitude for life and family after the storms. Participant 125, for example, was grateful just for being alive as she was aware of several people who died in the community:

125 (20-year old female): The majority of how you deal with stuff is attitude. You know, my mother is one of those who she’ll say about all the stuff she lost. She lost her clothes, but it’s like, but you’re alive. You have people who didn’t make it out, [like the people] at that nursing home [where] thirty-something people died…. So, when you look back…our family was all together, our family was all alive. To me, it’s just,…[there] was much more positive [that] came out of it.

352 (53-year old female): “So you know, as far as you know the positive outcomes of this, every day is a positive outcome. That God allows me to wakeup. That’s as positive as it gets. I woke up on the right side of the dirt.”

Becoming a better person—a more selfless and grateful person—includes recognizing what ultimately matters most in life. This process of self-evaluation for several of our participants included the identification of the “more important” things that will occupy their minds, focus, and emotional energy as they continue forward. For several participants, a change in perspective meant that material goods do not matter as much as personal serenity or warm and close relationships. Notice that participant 125 was not only happy to be alive but she also recognized that the “stuff” that her mother lost meant nothing compared to family and physical safety. A similar idea is expounded in the next subtheme to which we now turn.

Subtheme 2: Material Possessions Do Not Ultimately Matter: “I don’t need all of that anymore”

Several participants seemed to experience a shift away from materialism in the wake of the storms, as articulated by the following excerpts:

313 (47-year old male): …as long as it is not a human life and it is material things, they can be replaced, and they are not really worth what you think they are anyway.

151 (62-year old female): We just don’t worry about things and all anymore. When I say “things,” what I mean is possessions. That’s not—it’s not a big deal to us anymore. We like the things that we have that we’ve bought in place of the things that we lost, but none of it takes up a whole lot of time with us anymore as far as, “Oh we need to get this. Oh, we need to get that.” Now, we kind of let go of the materialism. It’s very humbling. It’s very humbling. It’s—you just think to yourself. I have got to the point where I realize I had too much anyway, as far as material things. I had way too much. I don’t need all of that anymore. What I want is peace of mind. I want—just peace.

Even though participant 151, for example, replaced many of her material possessions after the storm, her family is reportedly no longer investing much emotional energy on acquiring and displaying them; instead, they sought “peace of mind.” Many participants similarly acknowledged, like the woman just quoted (151), that they “had too much anyway as far as material things” and did not “need all of that anymore.” It is important to note, however, that this perspective may be related to the 5 years that had passed since Katrina and Rita. This tempered and reflective state of mind may not have been evident in the immediate aftermath. To illustrate, consider participant 137 who recalled the following observations among people in her neighborhood immediately after the storms:

137 (71-year old female): It’s surely interesting. This was a clinical observation of mine. When we first came back and we would talk to people about their problems, about what you lost, it was all loss: “I lost this. I lost that.” The ladies that lost the pictures like of their babies and of their weddings, they were off the wall. They were nuts. And I’m thinking…[all this fuss over] a piece of paper? I mean, I don’t know…a picture only makes you recall a memory; [but] the memories are [still] there.

Based on some reports, like the previous quote, as well as our own observations of changes in participants across time, shifts in perspective are not typically immediate and may require months or even years.

Participant 203, although having lost much (like all of our participants) reflected that for her, “The silver lining is realizing how important your relationships are in your life, not your new sofa” (52-year-old female). Another woman (124) provides an additional and final example of a change in perspective regarding material possessions:

124 (69-year old female): Things are tangible. Home…it’s a tangible thing. It’s not…it’s a touchable thing, but it’s not the most important thing. Things are not important. I look back, I can see my grandmother’s little lavatory that was so beautiful that was [broken] in pieces. And I looked at my children’s grandmother’s rocker that was beautiful, and it’s…all that’s gone. So we can’t put so much of our minds and bodies and souls into these material things. It…that’s not where it’s at. It’s in…people and most of all it’s in the knowing that God is there. That is, to me, the most important part, that He’s in control. [Whatever] things that have occurred, whether I like them or not…He’s going to make it work. He’s going to make things okay. And as I said, I have seen beauty [rise] from the ashes. And that’s it. I don’t think I can advise people on how to cope with all this. Just got to keep on trucking. That’s it.

Like many other participants, this woman (124) emphasized that “things are not important,” and also recognized that investing “so much of our minds and bodies and souls into these material things” is pointless. The shift away from material possessions to relationships, including a relationship with God, is another major theme discussed by the participants (see Chap. 20, this volume). Notice that 124 believed that “knowing that God is there” is more important than knowing that your material possessions are there. We now shift our focus from the “personal growth” and antimaterialist foci of Theme 1 to a “silver linings” discussion of positive new environments in Theme 2.

Theme 2: Appreciation for a New, Positive Social Environment

In addition to a new perspective on life and a rejection of materialism as a means to happiness and increased feelings of self-worth, several individuals we interviewed expressed deep appreciation for their new (post-evacuation) neighbors and new social environment. Some mentioned that, in some ways, the hurricanes seemed to have an elevating effect on their neighborhoods in that only those who were most committed to St. Bernard as a community seemed to be willing to invest the time, effort, money, and risk required to rebuild the devastated area. In other words, the people who moved back into the area to rebuild were happy to be there, even at high personal cost. For many of these, their local community was reportedly like an extended family. One participant (254) described the new social ambiance of his neighborhood after he returned, which was reminiscent of the 1960s when many people seemed happier to him:

254 (59-year old male): The people that live here are better people. The only people that you see in Chalmette [now] are the people that want to be here. So, every neighbor you talk to is glad to see you. Just, it’s almost like it was in the ‘60s when we moved here. You know, semi-rural and everybody’s…just happy to be here. The one third of the population that said, “You know what? I don’t think real estate is disposable stuff, and I’m going to rebuild my house and my life where I used to live.” That one third that you see on the street are just happier, easier to get along with. You know, it’s just a better environment. When I see the kids in religion class [at church], it’s like night and day. Before the storm, we had a lot of behavior problems…kids that just, you know, come from obviously poor parental environments. [Things have improved].

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Seeing Silver Linings After Catastrophic Loss: Personal Growth, Positive Adaption, and Relationships that Matter
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