United Methodist Committee on Relief


Spiritual and emotional care is a vital part of UMCOR’s post-disaster ministry.
Children who survive disasters often express themselves through drawing.
Susan Kim

By Susan Kim*

February 19, 2013—A vital part of UMCOR's response to disasters is spiritual and emotional care. Below are some essential myths—and truths—about this special type of post-disaster ministry.

Myth: Only people who identify themselves as "religious" can benefit from spiritual care.

TRUTH: Disaster significantly disrupts people’s spiritual lives. Nurturing their spiritual needs contributes to holistic healing. “Spirituality is an essential part of humanity,” explains Mary Hughes Gaudreau, a US Disaster Response consultant for UMCOR. “Every person can benefit from spiritual care in times of disaster.”

Myth: Mental health professionals can substitute for spiritual care providers.

TRUTH: Spiritual care providers partner with mental health professionals in caring for communities in disaster. “The two fields share some similarities but are distinct healing modalities,” said Gaudreau. Spiritual care providers can be an important asset in referring individuals to receive care for their mental health and vice versa.

Myth: Once disaster survivors have returned to their homes, the emotional and spiritual impact of the disaster has ended.

TRUTH: The full emotional impact of disaster may be delayed three to ten months or more after survivors get a handle on practical matters and begin to realize the permanence of some of their losses. In addition, trauma exacerbates difficult situations which were present before the trauma. Family, group dynamic, employment, and other personal difficulties may become more pronounced over months or even years.

Myth: Children impacted by disaster can articulate their concerns with words.

TRUTH: Young children generally lack the verbal and conceptual skills necessary to cope effectively with sudden stress by themselves. “That's why emotional and spiritual care providers try to give children opportunities and encouragement to express their emotions through play and drawing,” said Gaudreau. “Believe it or not, playacting the disaster is often part of the healing process for children.”

Myth: Everyone reacts in the same way to the high stress and trauma associated with disasters.

TRUTH: We can predict some general tendencies but people react within the context of their social support system, age, general attitudes about life challenges, previous history of trauma, and, of course, their actual experience during the disaster. Many people recover well with an increased sense of accomplishment and strength. Others may need extra help as they gradually rebuild their lives. Still others experience a great deal of difficulty. Substance abuse, child or spousal abuse and suicide rates may increase.

Myth: "I'm fine" always means "I'm fine."

TRUTH: Those impacted by disasters may minimize their pain or the damage their families received. It's common to hear disaster survivors say, “Others are so much worse off than we are,” or “It could have been much worse.” Sometimes this indicates honest, positive coping, said Gaudreau, but other times disaster survivors are simply having difficulty accepting the gravity of what has happened.

Myth: Spiritual care must be left to the professionals coming from outside of the disaster zone.

TRUTH: Local communities of faith are uniquely gifted in providing spiritual care. “Disaster spiritual care starts at the local level,” said Gaudreau. “Sometimes overwhelming need may require additional assistance from outside the community, but that help supports rather than substitutes for local efforts.” Since UMCOR works on the foundation of belief that those affected by disasters deserve access to respectful and compassionate spiritual and emotional care, UMCOR trains conference spiritual and emotional Care Teams that meet national guidelines and ethical standards. Those teams are then prepared to provide additional support to local efforts.

Help support UMCOR's vital spiritual and emotional care efforts. Please give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.

*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to

Help support UMCOR's vital spiritual and emotional care efforts. Please give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.