Remembering Katrina and Surviving the Loss of Everything


Every autumn my memories go back to 2005 in south Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of the breached levees redefined home for so many people in New Orleans as well as the surrounding communities like Baton Rouge where our family lived. Not only human life but property and personal possessions hung in the balance. The widespread trauma of property loss was devastating claiming more than a 300,000 homes and causing between $40-$66 billion in insured losses. Mourning practices and avenues for expressing grief rise to the surface when a person dies, but we often fall short in acknowledging the loss of objects.

"Then fortune ambushed me..."

These words from a recently discovered letter of ancient physician and philosopher Galen provide new insight into a unique form of grief, the loss of material possessions, and offer guidance for how to chart a path to resiliency. Galen: On the Avoidance of Grief, translated by Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson, gives a personal snapshot into this prolific ancient writer and student of Hippocrates, who grieved after a devastating fire. Living in the Second Century, Galen is considered one of the most important physicians of all time and the father of the study of anatomy. Late in his career in 191 and 192, he experienced two devastating fires to his libraries. In this personal letter to a friend, he inventories his lost silver, gold, contracts, rare books and translations, a wide assortment of simple and compound medicines, and various pieces of medical equipment, many he invented. His catalogue of loss vacillates from the sentimental poignancy of one-of-kind accomplishments to the inconvenient discomfort of missing household staples. He writes:

I was in need of everything... I felt annoyed then, just as I still feel now, daily finding myself in need of one thing or another -- a book, instrument, or medicine.

His description of loss resonates with my experience in the years after Hurricane Katrina. Friends and colleagues who lost homes in the flooding grieved this same tension between the devastating loss of priceless family keepsakes and the general annoyance of having no dress socks or pencils. The bulldozing of a flood-ravaged home removed the mixed accumulation of both the profound treasures and quotidian clutter of everyday life. But Galen writes not simply to catalogue the depth and breadth of his loss but to explain to his friend why he is "not troubled even though all his valuables were destroyed." His friend is shocked at his lack of distress and this letter shares Galen's plan for personal resiliency.

First, Galen relies upon his espoused philosophy of Stoicism, which puts his valuation of personal property into perspective and shapes the trajectory his grief takes. Pierre Hadot explains that philosophy in antiquity including Stoicism was intended to be lived and confessed: "an exercise practiced at each instant." Galen recalls being raised in the virtues of the Stoics by his father and grandfather who stressed that wisdom lies in a proper understanding of things human and divine. He does not acutely grieve his possessions because he believes they do not hold ultimate value. He writes:

I consider everything (human) to be ultimately trivial. (If I were not raised with this reasoning), I would assume leisure, instruments, medicines, books, reputation, and wealth were vital. However, for the one who takes everything (human) to be trivial, what thought should there be for the presence or the absence of these things?

This philosophy challenges him to divest himself of confidence in worldly goods, and to want only what he needs to live and no more. He tells the story of a man with a field who no matter his acreage always sees a man with more, and thus he wants more. People like this man, "advancing little by little, eventually desire everything and will, in this respect, always be poor, their desire unfulfilled." Because Galen already deems himself rich without the possessions that were destroyed, the loss of those possessions cannot make him poor.

Galen does clarify that losing possessions differs from losing one's home. The fire did not destroy his home leaving him destitute, an experience he prays will not happen. As philosopher Gaston Bachelard describes in Poetics of Space, "our house is our corner of the world... the non-I that protects the I." The stability of our worldly shelter translates to our confidence in the trustworthiness of the world: "The house helps us to say, I will be an inhabitant of the world in spite of the world." The destruction of property after a natural disaster can shake our confidence in the safety of the world. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, young Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, live in a cobbled-together bayou nest that is utterly vulnerable to the ambush of wind and salty sea and yet mythically impenetrable to the existential storms of life. Hushpuppy eventually learns to leave her swampy nest, but only because that first nest is strangely stable. Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans Mon Amour or Chris Rose in One Dead in Attic: After Katrina also chronicle how the loss of place threatens to deconstruct their sense of home in the world, the city they love. Their memoirs of material loss echo Galen's reflections on how losing the "what" of life does not scar as deeply as losing the "where." Galen hopes his Stoic philosophy prepares him for both, but he confesses he has only experienced one, the loss of "what" but not of "where."

Galen's philosophy not only shapes his perspective of worldly goods but also realistically encourages him to train his imagination to withstand their inevitable loss. Today, hospice professionals describe this practice as anticipatory grief: the moments when the inevitability of loss becomes real and thus opens an opportunity to develop healthy coping mechanisms prior to the actual loss. Galen envisions loss in order to endure it in the future.

I was reminded of this coping tactic when talking with our adolescent son about Minecraft. He fears being "griefed," which is when other players destroy property and possessions in your Minecraft world. As MinecraftWiki explains, "most griefers goals are destroying as much land, building, and creation as they can to make the server as unusable as possible." To best protect against "griefing," experts advise preparation. Protect your server, cautiously mete out privileges to guests, and mentally accept that playing with others holds liabilities. A player cannot avoid grief, but preparation can aid in enduring it.

Finally, beyond philosophical framing and training to endure loss, Galen concludes that avoiding distress depends on sharing the loss with others. The very writing of this letter helps him express his losses as real while naming his own path to withstanding them. He even admits to his friend that, "I can only dismiss suffering if I am able to converse with a friend." As grief counselor Alan Wolfelt shares in his popular Griefwords:

Self-expression can change you and the way you perceive and experience your world. Transforming your thoughts and feelings into words gives them meaning and shape. Your willingness to honestly affirm your need to mourn will help you survive this difficult time in your life.

Galen's personal letter serves as his way to tell his story and thus share the burden of his loss. Authors from C.S. Lewis to Dave Eggers to Joan Didion to Rod Dreher write and publish memoirs after a loss as a way to express their internal grief and to mourn with others. Reading a memoir can help us train for losses in our own lives as we weigh how each unique response or behavior resonates or conflicts with our own personalities or family system. Memoirs invite us into a space where we can consider how our own philosophies frame our life and approach to loss. We can cultivate a plan for perseverance.

"Then fortune ambushed me..."

The sudden sweep of a natural or personal disaster can happen at any time causing loss of life as well as treasured property and possessions. Ancient physician Galen reminds us that resiliency should not be left to chance. An ability to endure can be gained through philosophical reframing, mental preparation, and sharing our grief with friends and family. Nine years later, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues to reveal how unprepared we were and how recovery is a long grief process.

Follow Amy Ziettlow on Twitter @RevAmyZ