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California Fires Post Trauma Recovery

california firesThe dark gray clouds was all I remembered that day as a 5 year old girl running around the garden in our old house in Cebu. In the eyes of a child, it was just an ugly dark cloud not knowing that the gas depot was burning a few meters away. I recall the evacuation, scurrying away to the front gate into the safety of my grandma’s car. I didn’t know the gravity of the situation then but I could sense the relief of my parents as we went back to our house. There in the front yard were all our furnitures and stack of boxes. Apparently, my mom stayed behind to pack up some of our stuff and even managed to haul off the furniture. She had the luxury of time to pack up unlike the victims of the Southern California Fires. We were probably lucky because our house didn’t catch fire. Our neighbors lost their homes. We were saved. No one died though.

Losing a home is not just losing a material possession. It’s losing the memories attached to the home. And like any loss, it’s a painful process. There is grief too. Any major event in our lives affects every aspect of our lives. They don’t know what is “out there” or how they’re going to be affected by this change somewhere down the line.

I have a friend who lost her 15 year old daughter in a fire. Unimaginable grief. Inspite of the horror of the tragedy, she chose to rebuild her home in the exact same lot. The loss of a house can easily be rebuilt but the loss of a child is permanent. I am not minimizing the victims who have lost their homes. True, they will face the same grieving process as bereaved parents face but there is hope. There is hope that they can rebuild their lives.

Right now, their lives are all but shattered with grief. It is often a mystery how they are going to get through the next 24 hours, let alone make the necessary adapatations for next week, next month or next 6 months.

One gets through one terrible day. Then another. Eventually the first anguish of grief begins to fade. Then maybe one will think that they have passed the worst of it. Then something will happen– the scent of the flowers or memory of the house that was, and one is overwhelmed with fresh grief. The grief journey is a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

For most of these victims, they do not ‘get over’ life and tragic events. They learn to live with them. They learn to live with the pain of the loss and the aftermath of memories. They learn to live a new normal. But how does one go through the post trauma effects of their loss?

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés came up with a list of post-trauma recovery advice, of which I have listed a few in bullet points for easy reading:

  • Within the first 24- 72 hours, do strenuous exercise alternating with relaxation.
  • Keep busy, do not sit and do nothing. Feeling displaced, angry, sad, orphaned, and bewildered are normal reactions.
  • Talk to people — talk is one of the most healing things you can do. Tell your story as you see it.
  • It doesn’t matter whether one’s talk is broken or cohesive… telling one’s own story is what matters.
  • Don’t allow anyone to push you by insisting, ““It’s over now, we have to move on.”
  • Feelings of loneliness and deep feelings of worry, or longing toward loved ones injured, or now gone, can be partially mediated by being with those who understand from the ground up, that is, other people who have gone the way you are going now.
  • Try not to cover up your feelings by withdrawing or by using alcohol or drugs. Talk your feelings out.
  • Reach out to others. They really do care. Be good to yourself and let others be good to you too.
  • Spend time with others. There may be times of reflection and solitude. But, do not isolate yourself.
  • Rest, take good care of your body. Feed it decent food. Soothe and energize the body.
  • It’s alright to take time out. It is not negligent to not want to listen anymore.
  • Healing from shock is not a straight line, it is a zig-zag line, sometimes two steps back and three steps forward.
  • If you need a lawyer, it is likely best to seek your own referrals from trusted friends.
  • Talk therapy with a therapist trained in post-trauma recovery is useful to untangle thought processes that often become jammed by prior pressure to respond to too many sudden and strong stimuli all at once.
  • If you are a parent, help your children by listening, listening.
  • In the ensuing days, find things to do that feel rewarding, meaningful or refreshing. These need not be big things, but events or endeavors to offer some small balances to the tragedy and overwhelm you have been through.
  • When you feel bad, find a person to talk to, and to cry with, to tell of your anger and other helpless feelings. Don’t keep it inside.
  • If you have spiritual practices, your spiritual beliefs will definitely help you through. Cleave to them in full.

I hope they will have the courage for the long haul and courage for each day’s journey.

Photo from US airforce

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