On Sept. 6, 2010, Roni and I and our two dogs went on a five-mile morning hike out our front door in Fourmile Canyon outside of Boulder. We went on a trail I have hiked literally hundreds of times.
About 10 a.m., we stopped to look at a tiny, nearby mountain museum that had opened a couple of years before. Unbeknownst to us, someone was phoning in that a fire had started a mile away from where we stood. We were unaware that anything was amiss. As we were hiking back to the house, we could smell smoke, but my house and the surrounding mountain was fine. I could hear airplanes and helicopters nearby, so I figured that whatever the problem was, it was under control.
I figured wrong. There were no planes or helicopters. I had been hearing the roar of an approaching forest fire raging toward us. Never having heard that sound before, I didn’t recognize it. But when I saw flames on my mountain approaching my home, I hurried the dogs into the car and told Roni we had to leave right now. Driving down, Roni saw our neighbors’ house ablaze.
Eight days later, the fire was contained and residents were allowed back to see their houses. It is hard to describe what happens when a beautiful, green, wooded mountain environment is burned, but it is a surreal sight. Virtually all the trees are dead, all the vegetation is gone, nothing is alive, nothing is green, everything is covered in dark ash. My property now overlooked thousands of dead trees.
And my home was no longer there.
Nothing from my house survived. Everything I owned was gone. Burned beyond recognition.
What we now know is that the fire came right through the trail we were on, which means that, had we left the house 45 minutes later, we would have been on foot with the dogs as the fire overtook us, and we would have certainly died.
We didn’t die. My house did.
Almost two decades ago, I wrote of losing everything I owned in a house fire. Periodically since then, I reflected on the long, arduous, torturous, emotionally painful process it was to recover from the catastrophic loss that was my first fire. In 2010, I had to recover from the second.
To the hundreds of people who have lost their homes in Colorado and elsewhere this summer, I can assure you that recovering from catastrophic loss requires harnessing all of your inner and personal reserves. I am fully aware that some of my fellow fire victims have never recovered from their loss. Some people are completely defeated by adversity, bad luck or misfortune, and they live out the rest of their lives bitter, defeated, angry, hopeless and with a chip on their shoulders.
But that is not me. It was a royal pain, but I have recovered and I’d like to share some ways others can get through this as well.
Everyone gets bad breaks: that’s part of life. But people who experience a major trauma — the loss of someone very close, rape or assault, a major accident or disease, a major calamity or a catastrophic fire frequently feel their sense of control over their lives, and their vision of the future, has been shattered.
Trauma survivors have an insatiable need to talk about what happened to them. They are not looking for advice. More often than not, they find well-meaning advice from others unhelpful and even insulting.
People who say “it’s only stuff” have clearly never lost everything they owned. One thing a catastrophic fire will teach you is that our “stuff” — clothes, keepsakes, artwork, photos, furniture, music, books and the personal mementos that define our pasts, our life experiences and our memories — are way more important than you think. Our “stuff” contains links to our past, the way we express ourselves and what we most value. Other than our relationships, what we keep in our homes is what we most value.
How we deal with trauma or adversity is individual. Some people get paralyzed with fear, depression, hopelessness, self-pity or helplessness, while others become hyper-functional and try to do everything, which most often leads to feelings of burnout and joylessness.
Familiar surroundings ground us, and without them you are likely to feel off-balance and unsure of yourself. You will have a harder time focusing and concentrating, and you will likely experience a sense of disorientation with all of your “anchors” gone. You are also likely to be more intolerant. Frustrations that you would normally take in stride you may now have no patience for. Trauma survivors do not suffer foolishness or small talk easily.
Trauma survivors look for someone who will listen to their story with compassion — someone who will be there as a friend and ally. This is compounded by the fact that very few people have the compassion, the empathy or the life experience to really be helpful.
No one knows ahead of time how they’re going to react to a personal crisis when it arises. It’s one thing to imagine how we’re going to handle a major problem, and it’s an entirely different thing to go through the experience and deal with emotions as they occur.
In a crisis you are faced with a fundamental choice: rise to the occasion and deal with your new life situation, or allow yourself to feel broken and defeated.
The following recommendations are for anyone needing to heal from a major loss or calamity:
• Permit your sad, angry, hurt and devastated feelings to be there, but also look at what gives you hope. Regeneration begins with a vision of something you hope for.
• Resist the temptation to give up. Life is about falling down and getting back up again.
• Be in touch, on a daily basis, with your soul or spirit. Your essence. The part of you that stands above your day-to-day concerns. The you that has a lifelong perspective instead of a short-term one.
• Journal. Write down your emotions, feelings and struggles. A journal is enormously helpful and comforting.
• Under-indulge in things that anesthetize your emotions, such as food, alcohol, recreational drugs or TV.
• Talk with trusted others. If you don’t talk about it, you will feel worse.
• Find somebody who has been through a similar experience and has gotten through it. There is strength in compatriots and kindred spirits.
• Expect less of yourself for awhile.
• Don’t rush into making major decisions unless you have to. Your decision-making is impaired.
• Make yourself look for a silver lining. You know what you’ve lost. Now look look at what possibly can be gained from this loss.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a syndicated columnist. His website is heartrelationships.com
Read more: Therapist who lost home to Fourmile Fire offers advice to evacuees – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/lifestyles/ci_21000546/therapist-who-lost-home-four-mile-fire-offers#ixzz20B0sGTN6