Help in the Midst of the Inferno

I wrote the following blog in the middle of the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado.  It seemed to resonate with a lot of people, so I am re-posting it for the people who are going through the Butte Fire as well as many others in California right now.  I hope it is helpful.

It has now been eight years since we lost our house to a forest fire.

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I’ve been sitting and watching the wildfires rage in the hills above our house  in Colorado, waiting with bags packed if we need to evacuate.  As if this this wasn’t tense enough, this is all bringing back a flood of memories to five years ago, when a California wildfire got out of control and burned our house to the ground.  We got out with the clothes on our back, our dog, and nothing else.

I’ve been frustrated with not being able to do anything, without the spare cash to give money to those in need, and with a small child who needs his mama to be with him.

I wrote the following to those who are currently facing what we went through.  It isn’t a journey I would wish on anyone, and I’m hoping this helps.

To the evacuees waiting to go home:

You are facing the hardest part right now.  You are wondering what has happened to your home, or if you even have a home anymore.  You are swinging between wild hope and despair.  You have cried tears of fear, anticipation, and of weariness from the waiting.

Try to keep busy.  If you have children, keep as normal a routine as you can.  If you have pets, play with them.  The distraction will be good for all of you.

For you, I pray for peace and for strength.  I pray for sleep at night and that your mind will be quiet, allowing you to build up your strength for the coming days.

It will get better.

To those who have lost your homes:

My heart aches for you.  There is little as overwhelming as what you are facing right now.

For a while, your life is going to be lived not a week at a time, or even a day at a time, but an hour at a time.  Get through the next hour and let the hour after that be what it’s going to be.  Try not to look too far ahead into an unknown future.

Allow yourselves to grieve.  It is true that it is only “stuff”, but it was your stuff, your memories, your treasures.  Cry if you need to.  Be angry if you need to.

Try not to second-guess yourself.  The “if-onlys” are going to come fast and furious.  Block them out.  You did everything you could, you followed the advice of the people who knew best, and you kept yourself and your family safe. Rest in the knowledge that you did the best you could with the information you had at the time.

Allow people to help you.  You will have hundreds of people who want to help. Accept the gifts, the money, the food, the shelter, and the clothes.  Be gracious in your acceptance of even the oddest items.  Those strange things are going to become a funny story down the road.  You will be flat out overwhelmed by the generosity and love of friends and strangers.

Remember that people are scared and unsure of how to help.  They are going to say strange and sometimes downright rude sounding things.  Remember that they aren’t trying to be jerks.  They just don’t know what to say and sometimes, in the moment, the absolute wrong thing comes out of their mouths.  Let go of the wrong things, and be grateful for the thoughts, the attempts at kindness, and if you need to, cry in private.  As tempting as it is in the moment to say something back, keep your mouth shut.  You will be grateful in the days to come that you didn’t reply.

It’s okay to feel like taking it “a day at a time” is too overwhelming to comprehend.  Take it an hour at a time.  At the end of that hour, deal with the next hour.  Eventually, you will live a half a day at a time and then the impossible will happen and taking it a day at a time won’t sound like science fiction.

You are going to grieve the loss of your treasures for years to come, but like any other grief, it won’t be as sharp, as hard, or as overwhelming.

I pray for strength to do the overwhelming, hope for what now seems to be a dark future, space to grieve, and for the endurance you’ll need to pick up the pieces and move forward to a brand new normal.

My prayers will be with you in the days and months to come.

To those whose loved one has lost their home:

Your friend or family member is going to be facing some dark times ahead and they need your love, your support, and your protection.

They need to know that they aren’t alone.

They need to know that you are there no matter what.

They need to know that it’s okay to hurt, to grieve, and to feel whatever it is that they are feeling.

They need both your company and to be alone.  Be sensitive to the need for both.

The most important thing I can say to you is to be as quiet as you can.  The things they don’t need to hear:

“It’s just stuff.”  While this is technically true, the stuff you might be tempted to talk about are your loved ones most precious possessions, things that remind them of beautiful days and give them hope for the future.

“It’s replaceable.”  Some things are, some things aren’t.  I got new clothes, new beds, new furniture.  I will never get back my wedding dress, my great-grandfather’s first gift to the woman who would become my great-grandmother, my daddy’s duct-taped Bible, or the tiny outfit that I wore that Jake was supposed to wear on his way home from the hospital.

“Why didn’t you get out sooner, stay longer, take an inventory of your possessions, get a better insurance policy…”, or just fill in the blank with whatever you are thinking at the time.

“What do you need?”  The answer to that questions is: Everything!  See below for some suggestions on how to help practically.

“How are you feeling?”  The answer to that is that they are feeling everything and nothing all at the same time.  There are too many conflicting emotions, thoughts screaming to be recognized, and grief weighing it all down.  I can’t remember how many times that question made me want to sit down and cry.

What they do need to hear:

“I love you.”

“I’m here.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“I’ll  do whatever I can to help.”

Be as sensitive as you can, and if you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you and I’m here”.  That will go a very long way.

This is going to be a long journey.  I’ve discovered what I call the “Six Week Rule of Disasters”, which is that everyone has about six weeks of time to give emotionally, financially, and of their own time to someone who has gone through a devastation.  It is normal for everyone to need to get back to their own lives.  Know that some of the hardest times is AFTER six weeks, when reality sets in, the tasks are done, a new home has been found, and your loved one finally has the cosmic space for reality to hit hard.  Continue to check in and love them.  They still need it!

Practical Ways to Help:

If you know clothing sizes, likes or dislikes, go get stuff for your loved one.  If you want, go through a room, especially the bathroom, and write down everything you see from toilet paper, to toothbrushes, to a bathmat.  If you have the cash, go get the stuff and bring it to your friend.  If you don’t have the money, divide the list up and spread the wealth among your other friends.

Offer to go shopping with your friend.  I will never forget going to Wal-Mart and calling my mom, in tears, because there were 50 options for toothpaste and I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I needed.  She helped me get toothpaste and then asked me if I still needed item after item after item as I walked with a cart from one end of the store to the other getting the things she mentioned.  When you need everything, looking at a store  containing everything can be very overwhelming.

Gift cards or cash are probably the most helpful thing.  Your loved one will have needs that they can’t forsee right now.  It is one of the most overwhelming things in life to have to replace every single thing you have ever used or needed.  Gift cards can be used anytime and the generic visa cards can be used anywhere.

Not everyone who wants to help is close by, so get a tech-savvy friend to set up a website for information on what is needed and how best to get supplies and cash to your loved one. Include a place for personal messages.  There are long, dark nights ahead and those notes of encouragement and love will go a long way in helping.

Your loved one is going to be wary of taking so much stuff from people.  It gets overwhelming and there is a certain amount of American guilt at accepting charity built into us.  Be sensitive to this.  Continue to offer love as you bring them stuff and send them money.  It takes a very little amount of reassurance to overwhelm whatever they are feeling about not wanting to take so much “charity”.

Ask their friends and family to send pictures.  Copy entire photo albums or find duplicates of old pictures.  Pictures are the hardest thing to have lost and it will mean the world to have those memories back.

Love, love, love them.  Don’t stop!

By way of final encouragement, the last five years has seen plenty of grief, but also a great deal of joy as we’ve rebuilt our lives.  We’ve moved to a great new state (even if there are fires here, too!), we have a beautiful and hilarious son, another dog to keep our older one company, and we’ve grown and flourished in the aftermath of the fire.

Those memories will never be gone, but they have subsided to a quiet and peaceful place.

You will make it through this.  I promise!

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If you want to see a snippet of our experience, you can see it here:

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9 Responses to Help in the Midst of the Inferno

  1. cheekypinky says:

    This is awesome, friend!

    And the website you and Greg had was wonderfully helpful for understanding what you needed just after the fire.

  2. jessaqpublic says:

    Really good, very helpful post. Thanks, friend!

  3. behnnie says:

    You are in such a great– sorry about that– position to write a book on dealing with these sorts of things, both as the person who’s been hit by them, and as a person close to someone who’s been hit by them. Feel free to slip me an Amazon coupon code when said book is published. 😉

  4. Dyann says:

    Again.

  5. Bee says:

    Love you so much, best sister, six weeks after and five years after and until we are old and gray (even if nobody can tell because we’ve dyed our hair purple to cover it). I’m so sorry you have the experience required to write a post like this, but I’m so thankful that you have the words and the peace of heart to write for all the people who need to read it.

  6. Candice says:

    So I’m a friend of Brenda’s and I happen to live in Colorado… I’ve just seen the whole northern half of the Springs get mandatory evacuation orders. I don’t know what to say, or do. So we’ve taken note of your advice, and we’ll help however we can. Chin up. We’re thinking about you. ❤

  7. Kelly Behle says:

    Mary- You amaze me. Loving you three and praying for you. Kelly

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