Colorado burns. Again. Words of hard-earned Wisdom from my heart to yours.
To those affected by wildfires – those who have lost loved ones, animals and homes, or still wonder what you lost as you attempt to gather the fragments of information that are beginning to surface – our thoughts are with you.
We who lost homes in the horrible fire season last year are with you. We feel your pain. We know the anguish. We wince as we read the news, see the pictures and smell the smoke that drifts into our burned up hills. We understand. We were there – and now we are further down this life-altering path. We aren’t far enough along to have forgotten anything – and truthfully – none of us will ever forget. We will remember that day forever. We will remember the sounds, smells and how it felt. The chaotic moments of evacuation – or of not being able to return to collect anything – will be etched in our minds forever. We remember the terror, the bewilderment, the not knowing, then the knowing. We wish with all our hearts that you didn’t have to go through any of this.
You have joined a club that you never wanted to join. Your roller coaster ride has just begun – and won’t be over for a while. We are still on ours. After the smoke clears and the dust settles a bit, you will still be riding the ride. You will be dealing with your insurance companies and learning information you never ever wanted to know. You will be asked to walk from room to room in your mind to make lists of everything you ever owned. You will be tired – and you will get more tired. You will wonder if you can continue on. You will question everything. You will wonder why, is there a God, what did you do wrong, how could this happen? You will not want to believe it. You will begin the mourning process. Hopefully, you will rally together as neighbors to support each other and realize you aren’t alone. You will understand each other, as no one else really will. You will embrace those who were strangers previously and they will become something deeper than friends. You will be grateful to be alive but pissed beyond belief.
I hope you can let yourself have all of it, be all of it, and experience all of it. There is no “right” way to walk through this. Some of you will pop up more quickly, returning to life and moving on in ways – yet never forgetting. Others will take longer. Some will choose to close a chapter of your life, move to the city, or somewhere else. Others will have no idea what direction to go. I hope you can let yourself have whatever reactions you have and feel whatever emotions you experience. You may be terrified, angry, depressed, devastated, detached, or dejected. You may be all of those things in a 15-minute period. Some days you will see the light at the end of the tunnel, and others it will be black as night. Let it be. Let yourself be.
Let it take what it takes. Don’t try to rush through it. Don’t compare yourself to how someone else is doing. Don’t judge or make yourself wrong for anything. Surround yourself with people who will let you be however and whoever you need to be. Don’t waste your time with those who don’t get it. Life is too short for that.
Some more suggestions:
1. Don’t make any rash decisions – you will be raw for a while. Save the major decisions for a little further down the path. Give yourself a little time to breathe.
2. Get support – both professional and personal. Allow your community to support you. Take advantage of resources that are offered. Seek counseling. There is nothing wrong with needing help.
3. Make lists of everything. Carry a notebook everywhere you go. Write down thoughts you have, things to-do, anything that comes to mind. Write down all the people who offer to assist. Many people will offer many things in the beginning and you will NOT remember who said what. You will continue to need things, support, time and maybe even money later on. You probably won’t want a lot right away. Don’t turn people away – write it down so you can revisit later. Tell them you will get back to them at some point. And then do that.
4. Pace yourself. You will be quite tired in a way you have never experienced before. There is nothing wrong with you – your system is in overload. This is normal.
5. Try to sleep. This is a tough one – but rest when you can.
6. Attempt to settle as soon as possible in a place where you can unwind. If you are truly comfortable in a friend’s spare bedroom, this is fine but often no matter how lovely our friends are, eventually you will need your own space.
7. Find an outlet – whether it is exercise, going to movies, reading – or like for me – writing. I started writing 6 days after our fire and haven’t stopped since. Sixty-thousand words later, I still have more to say. If this is your thing, let yourself do it. Get the thoughts out there. Share your pain. I promise, it helps.
8. Expect that people in their well-meaning ways will say a lot of things that don’t seem so supportive. Give this list to your friends if it helps – and friends who are ready, please take this to heart! It helped me to bring humor to deal with the silly (and insensitive) things that come out of people’s mouths. Some of those will be:
a. “Well at least you _______ (fill in the blank).” At least you got out alive, at least you got your dogs, at least you have your health…. Just breathe when someone begins a sentence this way and move on. You will hear it a lot. It is annoying – and it will keep happening. (I have blogged extensively on this one in particular so you can read more about that here)
b. “Well you had insurance, didn’t you?” This question can leave you feeling that the asker has no concept of the magnanimity of what you are now dealing with. And they don’t. They can’t. Unless someone has gone though this, they have no idea. It’s not like a fender bender where you can put your house in the shop and come back to find it good as new.
c. “It must be so freeing to not have any stuff.” Or some variation of this… I was told I would hear this – and I have, multiple times. Often, it comes in the form of musings that seem to occur in front of you. People are attempting to look for the silver lining. Kindly ask them not to do that right now, for you. You will find your own silver lining in your own damn time. You do not need to be told. And, no, it isn’t really that freeing.
d. The question, “How are you?” This is a tough one. It’s what we humans ask each other all the time and most of the time, we don’t really mean it and certainly don’t want to know. I have asked my people to skip this question entirely and get right to the point.
The truth is people don’t know what to say, what to do, or how to help – and most people genuinely want to contribute something. Mostly they mean all the above with kindness in their heart, it’s just that they can be clueless at times. Have people with whom you can really unwind and let go. Bitch about what you need to bitch about. Vent when you need to. Scream, yell and cry at whim.
9. Say YES to support. And, keep saying yes, over and over and over again. You will need help. You will want help, even if you don’t want it now. Mostly, let people love you. Let them contribute to you. They really really want to.
Those of us who have walked through are own fires are here for you. Reach out if you want, we will answer. We want you to know that one day, you will smile again. Just not right now.
With love in my heart, tears in my eyes and sadness in my soul,
Lower North Fork Fire, Littleton, Colorado March 26th 2012