“I don’t have time to think about how I feel.” The disheveled woman gestures at tornado-ravaged debris that once had been her home. “Look at everything we’re contending with!” Her family members are aimlessly stumbling, poking at this or that. She spends the rest of her day dabbing away grime from salvaged silver.
How do we help those in such circumstances? This week our hearts go out to those learning about destruction and personal loss due to flooding in South Carolina. Where do their feelings leave them? How do we comfort, and help them move on?
When circumstances are overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck. There is so much to attend to immediately following disaster. Especially if the damage is personally catastrophic:
- The entire house is gone, and most of what it held.
- What about the all that paperwork, the ID that tells the world who I am?
- Where are my insurance papers?
- What about my job?
- How do I still get to work?
- Is my place of employment still up and running?
- My parents! Did they make it out okay?
- Are they injured? Do they have their heart medications?
- Where are they, anyway? Did they find a place to stay?
- Where will my family and I sleep tonight?
- How will we get food, or changes of clothing?
- What do we do about money?
- What about Suzie’s big test next week—her schoolbooks?
- Is the school even open?
The key lies in prioritizing. Basic physical requirements such as food, water, shelter, and being out of immediate harm’s way most naturally come to mind before other concerns, rightfully so.
Once immediate needs are satisfied, longer-term needs are easier to address: Will we remain safe and secure where we are now? Can we depend on continuing availability of survival resources we’re using?
Next come social needs—relations with family and friends, with community, and reestablishing or strengthening ties that bind us and serve to support one other.
This need hierarchy, first introduced by Maslow, unfolds more by instinct than conscious categorizing. However, after disaster, when so much needs attention at once, prioritizing may become muddled. Even on a good day, if we feel emotionally charged, thinking straight becomes difficult.
Should our tornado survivor, or our real-world flood survivors, start thinking about feelings? Maybe. Maybe not.
People best sort out aftermath emotions on their own timetable, neither before nor after. If our tornado family is out of harm’s way, assured of at least temporary food and shelter, and has a longer-term recovery plan in the making, sifting through the remains of their home may serve well as temporary refuge from what the future requires of them.
But If tinkering with unimportant details is from becoming too overwhelmed to address basic survival needs, it becomes a liability. Stepping back awhile from the overwhelming—that’s okay. At times, even a good idea. If it’s only avoidance, gentle assistance in refocusing may help:
- What are their as-yet unmet critical needs?
- What do they need most?
- Which need, if left unmet, has the most immediate unwanted consequences?
Taking care of the critical, one step at a time, eventually leads to a recovery plan. It can also become part of the cure for feeling overwhelmed.
For more on how to help others during disaster, see “Disaster Stress and Recovery,” offered by FEMA.