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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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At 11:15 PM on March 10th, 2011, my heart was burning and my stomach was churning.

I was watching the gruesome images from Japan, in real time, as the earthquake-tsunami rumbled through that country and began its course around the globe.
I finally turned off the TV, but I couldn't turn off my mind or my body in reaction to what I'd just seen. I slept fitfully, and awoke at 5 AM, with the horrific images still dominating.

When I walked into our offices at The Grief Recovery Institute at 7:00 AM, I told my partner, John, that my heart and my stomach were still in revolt. I knew we had to write about it, but I was so shaken that writing didn't seem like an option.

As I considered what to do, I remembered an eerily parallel morning—the day after Christmas in 2004—the day of the devastating Indonesian earthquake-tsunami that claimed 280,000 lives.

Hopefully, today's epic event in Japan and around the globe, will not take such a large toll of human life—even though each and every life lost is way too many.

I am still reeling, as are many of the people I know. The enormity of it all, once again showing the power of nature at levels we can barely comprehend. Finally, I decided that rather than writing a whole new piece, I am simply going to reprint the one we wrote back in 2004. I think you'll see how it fits today as it did then.



Certain events have the power to propel us into an emotional numbness, as if a hidden thermostat inside our hearts shuts us off. The pain is too much to bear.

On Sunday, December 26, 2004, we bore witness to such an event. The recorded sights and sounds of the tsunami entered our consciousness on the all-too-graphic wings of televised news reports. As with the repeated images of the World Trade Towers collapsing to earth, we are left with feelings that seem impossible to accommodate.

Another horrific wake up call, one we would rather do without.

As the emotional Novocain wears off we will try to talk to each other about what we are feeling. But sometimes there won't be words to fit the emotions generated by an event that is too hard to comprehend. And sometimes even hugs, which neither judge nor preach, will be equally futile.

Most of us here in America did not know any of the victims of the tsunami. Yet we are profoundly affected. We instinctively realize that for each perished soul there are many grieving survivors whose lives have been irrevocably altered. For them, we imagine that their grief is profound, each to the depths of their unique relationships with their loved ones who died. Even if we could speak to them, we know that our words, though well-intended, would barely brush them as they pass by.

At times like these, something larger than our own existence comes to the fore. Our membership in the family of humankind steps up. We care about the people who died, even though we didn't know them, because we are people too. Our hearts go out to the families and friends who must try to find a way to go on with their lives, because we also have families and friends and because we have the power of empathy which gives us a sense of what they might be feeling—if only just a little.

For the several hundred million—perhaps billions—of us, who did not personally know any those who died, there is something else that may be affecting us. It is most likely the memories of the losses from our own lives which come crashing back into our hearts and souls at a time like this. As our brains struggle to connect the emotional dots of grief compelled by this tragedy, we will summon up memories of painful events that have affected us more directly.

People are often surprised when emotional memories of events from decades ago, flash back into their hearts as they walk through the quick-sand of current tragic news. Our brains, eager to help us comprehend what is going on, forage into every nook and cranny of our memory bank and find all the loss events, major and minor, that have ever made us feel sad.

Those who are directly impacted will circle the wagons of close family and friends, and will talk of their personal relationships with those who died. They will talk backwards of the things they remember from their collective pasts, the good, the not so good, and sometimes even the ugly. And they will talk forwards about all the things that are not going to happen - the now unrealizable hopes, dreams, and expectations of the future.

They will talk. They will remember. They will laugh and they will cry. And that is how it should be.
For those of us who did not know any of the victims, we too must circle our wagons. We must count heads, and make sure our families and friendships are intact. We must take this unwanted occasion and use it to remember to say all those things to each other that we sometimes put off. Those simple yet profound things like the obvious, "I love you," as well as, "Thanks for the sacrifices you made for me when I was growing up," or, "I really appreciate your emotional support when I was going through a rough time."

Today we will talk. Today we will remember. Today we will laugh and we will cry. And that is how is must be.
Because we are the family of humankind.

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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