Dr. Petit Engaged: Recovering After Horrific Loss

Have you ever wondered how you might cope with what seems an unbearable loss? The tragedies striking two Connecticut families have many of us confronting a question we hope to never personally experience.

At St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, hundreds of people gathered Thursday to mourn three young girls who died along with their grandparents during a fire on Christmas morning in Stamford, Conn. The mother of the girls, 9-year-old Lily and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah and Grace, also lost her parents.

The grief of Madonna Badger, who escaped the blaze but lost her family, is nearly impossible to fathom.

So is that of Dr. William Petit, another Connecticut survivor of an almost unimaginable tragedy. In 2007, he was brutally beaten with a baseball bat by intruders who murdered his wife and two daughters. His wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela were strangled and burned in the brutal attacks. Their two killers were caught, convicted, and sentenced to death. (Both are on Connecticut's death row.)

On Wednesday, Petit announced his engagement to photographer Christine Paluf, who had volunteered her time and skills to a family foundation set up to honor charitable causes in memory of his wife and daughters.

"It's a life-affirming act on his part," says Dr. Redford Williams, a psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center. "This is a clear sign that he has emerged and is still engaged in life and making a life for himself going forward."

The stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.  Williams tells ABC News that survivors of personal calamities must also experience a profound awareness of what they are going through: "It's clear that losses of this magnitude are going to have a gigantic effect on your mental state, your mood, your sense of being out of control. You have to recognize that how you are feeling is normal and give it time."

While there is no simple formula for overcoming such loss, and all individuals react differently, the Duke psychiatrist says those who are successful seek out the bright side of daily life and work to forgive others. "Don't expect to say the world is 'hunky dory' but do look for positives. Give compliments. Let the other driver cut in your traffic lane. That will make you feel better."

Williams acknowledges such strategies don't work for everyone. People who have histories of depression or genetic pre-dispositions to mental illness "are much more likely to have trouble." They should seek professional counseling and, possibly, medication, he says.

Above all, Williams advises, understand that you will need time. "Time doesn't absolutely heal all sorrows but it does allow them to gradually diminish in their impact. As time goes on, you will process the loss because you still do have a life to live."

The engagement of  Petit, four years after suffering the devastating loss of his wife and daughters, is a strong demonstration of human resilience, according to Williams. "I cannot imagine any greater trauma than what he went through. But getting on with his life is a genuine way of honoring the memory of his wife and daughters."