Backfires and Boulders in Our Subconscious

Recovering Collectively from the Devastation of Natural Disaster

Backfires were set to drive the fires away in order to protect structures last month. In a similar way we have also done our best to protect our children as we made hard decisions about which toys to take and where to go in case our homes burned down or our houses flooded.

Do you recall the old rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug fly away home, your house is on fire and your children all gone”? Somehow a rhyme from my childhood that seemed innocent at the time has taken on a more menacing tone. My young mind never grasped the meaning of the words in the same way that they strike me now after understanding just how many people lost homes.

This makes me think about the power of story, myth and rhyme to help us heal after enduring something terrible. I remember as a child, each time I held a ladybug on my finger, I would either think or speak the rhyme and then blow gently. It gave me a good feeling to believe that I could do something to help the little critter get back to her home and children. To be able to do something to help something smaller and more powerless made me feel good.

Many of us recovering collectively from the devastation of this natural disaster have felt frustration about not being able to help enough. The weight of grief as we absorb the reality of how much is lost is a boulder we all now carry.

The increased irritability we feel with delays, changing locations, and people reacting in ways that upset us is to be expected. Our tempers may flare up with loved ones, we may find ourselves flooded with tears at unsuspecting moments, or we may want to eat or sleep more than usual. As we wrestle with questions about why this happened, we may want to determine where to lay the blame. All of these feelings are normal at this point in time.

Children are now returning to school, even though the location may be in a different place. Parents are doing their best to give simple honest answers about what happened. Now is the time for returning to “normal” and resuming routines. Structure will hold us steady in the early days of grief.

There are ways for all of us to use lessons from our childhood to help us heal in the aftermath of a fire and a storm we will remember for a very long time.

First, like with the ladybug, we can find some way to help others who are less fortunate than ourselves. People are already doing this by giving to the GoFundMe pages that are set up for people who lost their health or homes. Even more powerful than giving money, is to give time by volunteering. We know that helping others helps us feel better. Doing even one small thing for someone else matters. Heart-centered listening is another way to give. Just asking "Have you lost anything or anyone in this?" is a simple way to check in with someone you know. Respecting the privacy of someone not yet ready to talk about it is also important.

After the initial crisis, some people will begin to process the disasters in frightening dreams. Others will feel panic from a sound or smell that reminds them of the event. In the month following a disaster, these are normal responses and can be expected. No matter how close a person was to the mud or fires, if they perceived the threat and felt vulnerable, it can leave an emotional scar. The feeling of panic can remain.

Panic seeps into the unconscious if it is not processed fully during immediate aftermath of the disaster. People who are at the highest risk of longer term effects are those who loved a person, a pet, or a place that was lost, injured, or killed. Even a few hours of separation from loved ones during the incident can cause trauma. People who were frail or ill prior to the event may have a more difficult time recovering. Fearing the death of oneself or a loved one can have long term repercussions. Predicting resilience is not easy in the beginning.

There are psychotherapeutic methods designed to target traumatic memory such as EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing. These interventions are helpful to reprocess trauma so that it can be remembered but not re-experienced. Anyone who is having trouble concentrating or showing other signs of functional impairment may want to enter therapy briefly to heal the trauma.

Writing the narrative is another way to heal. In writing this piece, I noticed that I wanted to write not about the flames but about the grey ash that descended on our city. To me it felt like Mordor with its cloud of doom. Sometimes we don’t know the most disturbing part until we begin to write it down. I was concerned about the homeless breathing in all the toxic ash. It disturbed me to my core.

Try writing about your experience and you might find that something surprises you in the writing of it. Sensory memory is strong, and when we write about smells, sounds, and the things we see, we may get triggered. When emotions surge, we may find we can’t write. Usually these are the hardest parts. We may need to cry first or yell. As we process our grief, it becomes easier to write. It is fine to take a break and come back to the writing later.

I see many children in my practice. They express feelings in pictures. It can be powerful to take a bad dream and draw it in a way that would have been better. Helping a child to discover the fear inside the bad dream and then re-mastering it though a new drawing can be healing. In the same way, adults can also use art to heal. They say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” For adults also, art can be a wonderful medium.

There is something that many of us have not yet done. We have not lit a fire in our fireplace or sat by a campfire. Note that this also offers an opportunity. To take something that has been such a source of fear and pain and then to also recognize its beauty in a controlled setting is to understand that we can transform painful content into something good.

Sitting by a warm fire is nurturing and good. Families have gathered by the hearth of a fire from the beginning of time. We can sit by the fire with our loved ones and note the things we have that give us pleasure. We can talk about the stories and laugh and cry together. We can remember blowing on our first ladybug and watching her wings take to the air and understanding that even the smallest thing has the greatest capacity to heal.

Debbie Allen, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at Family Therapy Institute and a professor at Antioch University.

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