These days, real world disasters are stranger than any fictional ones I might dream up for the adventures of my protagonists, Sarah and Paulson. So my writing has taken a hiatus back into the realm of nonfiction. They will return, however.
For my latest nonfiction effort regarding Covid-19 and political divisiveness, see my post at www.thecogjameffect.com.
Big things happen. Some big things are bad. So are many of their consequences.
In their aftermath, going from day to day can be challenging. Though a number of such consequences relate to state of mind, many do not. The real world pragmatic impact of disaster and adversity must also be addressed. How we proceed in these tasks may change how we see ourselves. Perhaps for the good: we find resilience we didn’t know we had, and adjust our self-view accordingly.
But change takes getting used to. Is this really me? How do I hang on to any sense of “me”-ness, when the world that shaped and supported me has crumbled? Must I find something else big, some heavy-duty effort, to compete with the impact of major adversity?
Not really. It’s the little things that bring us back.
“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?
Incidents like yesterday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College put our resilience to the test. We will grieve because of it. We will each process the tragic incident in our own way. We continue to move on. Life goes on.
For children, it’s more complicated. Their personal resilience is not yet fully developed. They rely on their support system’s resilience to get them through disaster. For most, this means turning to parents and other significant adults for comfort and direction.
What should we say to a child when he or she asks about the horrific? Especially when it involves a shooting at a school, an environmental setting that is so prominent in their own lives. We cannot completely hide such incidents from them, given how they promote so much discussion and media coverage. What can we do to help keep a child from becoming an emotional casualty, after the fact? Continue reading
“Thanks for all you do.” Those who observe the effort, sacrifice and dedication of workers helping others during adversity often share this sincere appreciation. Their kind words do help.
The most critical need for the helper journey is ongoing restoration of the soul. The spirit of what leads us into public service occasionally needs replenishing. Without it we become depleted, “burnt-out” as labeled by the vernacular. It matters not whether we’re helping as a friend or neighbor, an agency volunteer, or a professional responder.
There isn’t one right answer for how to best avoid burnout. We each find our own answer to the question, “What restores me?” Continue reading
Disaster is like that. Trauma often is, as well. It’s like the rug being pulled out from under. All that seems solid, all that props up our self image, our routines, the view of our world and our place in it, is suddenly no longer there. We are vulnerable, protective coatings somehow stripped away.
How can we go on, in the face of any adverse life event that has left us feeling so exposed? How do we regain a sense of safety, and wholeness?
An adversity’s rightful place on the shelf of our recollections shifts throughout a lifetime. Still, there are ways to coax back a present sense of wholeness and wellbeing, even after disaster. Continue reading
Another September 11th has come and gone. Remembrances were shared, stories told, honors given. We pick up, we move on.
Yet feelings may linger. Perhaps it is something you can’t exactly put a finger on–some vague discomfort. Maybe it’s an unidentifiable sense of loss, anxiety, or anger. Whatever it is, it followed a crescendo as the date approached, and now slowly ebbs as time marches beyond.
Why do anniversary reactions happen? Not just on September 11th, but on any date marking an experience of trauma or loss? Continue reading
If you’ve had anything to do with disaster over the past decade or three, you’ve no doubt run across something called “debriefing.” Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) started up among firefighters. They used it after especially traumatic responses as a way of tending to unpleasant emotional reactions. They typically got together with their teams and followed a specific discussion protocol, delving into feelings about the incident, then moving toward coping or resolution. They found debriefing very useful for avoiding burnout. Over time, other emergency responders began using the debriefing process.
Eventually groups of disaster and other trauma survivors were collected together and given debriefing. The hope was that it might help them similarly resolve related emotional issues.
Unfortunately, when science caught up and measured the outcome of practicing it among such groups, it found no improvement. Surprisingly, at times it identified more emotional issues among them than among survivors who did not go through debriefing. How could this happen? Continue reading
“What a mess. Those poor people. How horrible. I’d like to help…but wouldn’t I end up just as messed up as the people on TV look? What about vicarious trauma? Compassion fatigue? Even PTSD?”
It’s true. Helping with disaster isn’t for everybody.
However, if you’re never been through disaster, and you base your perspective solely on what you see in the media, you may not have a balanced view. Dramatic scenes of damage, suffering victims, and emotionally overwhelmed emergency responders are the usual favored fare. They get the most press because they sell advertising space better than stories about those who rise to the challenge. Continue reading
“Everything they say about disaster preparedness makes sense. Sad to say, I’ve never had a personal plan. I haven’t given much thought to the possibility of something like that happening to me. It’s embarrassing.”
You are not alone. In fact, you’re normal. Yes, there is no end to the different types of disasters and crises that might crop up in today’s world. However, if we constantly sat around and thought about every possible accident or tragedy, we’d be too petrified to ever leave home. Letting such disturbing concerns benignly simmer somewhere on the back burner allows us go about daily lives without undue distraction.
The idea behind disaster preparedness is not to dwell on it. It is to simply establish a basic plan. Nobody else can build your plans for you. They need to be individualized to suit your circumstances. Continue reading
“You’re an angel.” The woman nodded, her certainty smiling back at me. “I know you are. I can see it in your eyes.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d received such a whimsical compliment after an interlude with a disaster survivor. Not that I ever fell into believing I’d donned some form of celestial avatar. I’m your usual mortal, bludgeoning my way through common inadequacies and annoying life foibles, the same as everyone else.
My new friend’s star-struck observation did strike at a chord of truth, one that resonates throughout the realm of addressing disaster needs. Contributions to recovery go beyond the feeding, sheltering, and other concrete resources typically thought of following disaster. Just as important is the intangible. Continue reading
“Why do I always feel so worked up? Why can’t I just relax?”
Our bodies are blessed with a “fight, flight, or freeze” response system. It’s a chemical chain of events that kicks in during times of urgency. Animals in the wild most clearly demonstrate its value. Engaging a foe, running from a predator, and freezing to become invisible are all practices that increase longevity. They are essential to survival. Such physical activity also uses up the chemicals that pump up the response.
With human beings, how it might be funneled into survival is not always clear-cut, especially following disaster. At first a course of action may be obvious, like gathering up loved ones and/or possessions, getting out of harm’s way, or helping with sandbags or rescue efforts. At other times, it means a lot of sitting around: hunkering down in a shelter, anticipating news of what happened or if you can go home, and waiting for relief resources to move in.
After the storm passes, additional considerations emerge:
- How widespread is the damage?
- What happened to the rest of my family and friends?
- How are our lives going to be affected by this?
- Are we going to make it?
- Is it really over?
- Will it happen again?
Such worries pump up our bodies for action. It’s the same as a gazelle out on the savannah, running from a lion. During disaster there generally isn’t any lion for us to run from, perhaps not even an idea of what could be done at the moment. The result is that dealing with disaster can turn into sitting and stewing in our own juices. Doing so brings about a host of physical, mental, and behavioral ailments. Those of us who go through severe trauma during a disaster are especially at risk. Continue reading