On the night of October 8th, 2017 I lost my home and everything I owned in Santa Rosa, California to the Tubbs fire. Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like to go through something like this, but hopefully what I learned from my experience can help. This guide can be helpful for those suffering from the loss or a loved one who is trying to help.
For anyone going through loss from fire.
Understand what you’re going through. Know that you’re not alone.
You are grieving.
Just like losing a loved one, you’re mourning the death of a life. Your life as you knew it. It’s important to remember that everyone processes grief differently. Go easy on yourself and others going through it with you. There’s no wrong way.
You are a victim.
Accepting the label is hard. It comes with it a lot of heavy associations of being powerless. And we don’t like to feel powerless. We like to feel in control. If you OWN being a victim, you control the narrative. You don’t need to be okay right now, you just need to get through it.
You are in survival mode.
When our bodies or minds experience a trauma, we lose the ability to access executive functioning skills like critical thinking, decision making, organization, and emotional regulation. It’s actually your body’s natural response to a trauma. Your brain is trying to protect you by dimming your thinking brain temporarily and prioritizing your survival brain. It may seem like it’s overcorrecting, but it’s got one job: self-preservation.
Tips for survival mode
- Accept help.
You’re not a burden. Your loved ones want to help you. Say yes to things like money donations, food deliveries, basic supplies, and clothes. And don’t be afraid to ask for those things either. Create an Amazon wishlist and share it with your network. When you can, you’ll pay it forward.
You want to get out of your own head and into your body. Physical activity helps us actively engage in connecting with our bodies and is scientifically proven to help us deal with stress better.
- Practice grounding techniques.
Practice things like meditation or sitting in a quiet place for a while and concentrating on slow breathing. Try a technique where you sit or lay quietly and speak out loud things you see, smell, and hear in your environment. For example, ”the ceiling fan has five blades. The lamp is bright and is covered in dust.” It sounds silly, but it actually works.
- Create a mantra.
Right after the fire, I was reminded of a poem I had written where I wrote the line “I am the tree, the tree is me.” This became my mantra, or a phrase I repeated over and over to myself to remind myself that I am strong and can get through it.
- Talk to a mental health professional.
It can help you get some insight or at least be able to process. I can’t speak highly enough of getting professional help.
Once you break free from survival mode, you can start to rebuild your life. But don’t try to force it. Just know that it will come. I’m inspired by a quote from Shane Koyczan. “If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces."
Tips for the Helpers
- Don’t say “It’s just stuff”
This is a trigger. We KNOW it’s stuff. We also know that certain stuff carries with it memories and emotional attachments we can never get back. And don’t do things like complain about the air quality around people who lost everything. Super insensitive.
- Don’t say “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”
It’s not actually helpful because it’s putting the burden on them to have to come to you for something non-specific. It’s like giving someone a living plant to take care of when they’re going through something difficult. Don’t give people extra responsibility. They will kill the plant then feel guilty about killing the plant. Try thinking of something specific that you can do for them instead like asking if you can bring them a meal or watch their kids or animals while they take care of insurance stuff. Also, don’t ever give someone a plant that’s struggling with executive functions.
- Set up a crowdfunding campaign
This is something that most victims don’t think to do themselves. It’s a pride thing. It’s an accepting help thing. Do it for them so all they have to do is share the link.
- Contribute to their Amazon wish list
If they’ve set one up already, see what you can get for them. If they haven’t, encourage them to do this and add things they need, regardless of how basic or silly it might feel.
Hope ALWAYS rises from the ashes. You DO have the strength to rebuild your life. It won’t look the same, but it doesn’t have to.