“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?
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
“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