One woman’s quest to make sense of a nonsensical world after losing her dream home and all her worldly possessions to a raging and sudden wildfire. Exploring the existence of God, our cultural discomfort with grief, what it means to be human as well as life in a 1967 Airstream trailer, Kristen Moeller shares her humanity, her spirit and her dark edge openly for herself as well as for the countless others who beg to be heard in their wild journey through this wacky world.
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When You Lose Everything…

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Yesterday, I discovered that a colleague and friend lost her home in the Napa area fire – I wrote this with her in mind and since posting it on FB, I received many requests for permission to share it.  It is with honor that I do so here – and with knowing we all process in our own ways.  I blogged publicly throughout my journey, starting on 4/5/12 – I skim many of the posts today and remember it all like it was yesterday.  I feel my breath catch in my throat, tears sting, I slow to take a deep breath and center, but also remember.  We all have our stories – this was mine.

Five years ago, I lost my sanctuary-dream-forever-home and all my wordy possessions in a sudden and raging wildfire. It was a relatively small fire by “fire standards”, yet it was a controlled burn that got out of control, swept up a hill unexpectedly and burned 20 other homes and took 3 lives. After, we came together as a small (but mighty) community in our fight for restitution and survival. Together we grew stronger. We all walked different paths towards healing – but the scars remain on our land, and in our hearts.fullsizeoutput_21e9

I wanted to make a simple list of ideas and suggestions but instead these words poured out of my heart.  If you are in the middle of your loss, you may not read all of them now, but I will be here to remind you, if you need – and want.  Friends, take what you like, and leave the rest.  Of course we all process traumatic events differently but after writing a book about loss due to fire and interviewing countless other fire-survivors, this is what I have learned.

To start with: It’s not just stuff. Well, of course, it is and isn’t. Us spiritual/personal growth/healer-helper/Buddhist/ or just pragmatic-types tend to focus on the benefit of non-attachment.  We think: it’s just stuff and therefore if we get upset about the loss of something, then perhaps we are not as well/transformed/educated/free/spiritual as we could be, or definitely as we should be.  So, yes, molecularly speaking, it is just stuff – but in a natural (or man made) disaster this loss happens in the blink of an eye and you don’t just lose things that clutter up your life and “shouldn’t matter”, you lose things such as (these examples are collection of those I have heard from others and experienced myself):

  • the last long handwritten letter your late mother ever wrote to you that you had folded carefully in your bottom desk drawer which every time you opened, your heart remembered before your head did and your eyes filled with tears
  • your wedding dress you were saving for your god daughter, carefully packed away from that day so many years ago
  • that perfect pair of slippers that you’d had forever that just reminded to slow down and breath the minute you put them on
  • that stuffed animal with the ear missing that you had since you were a baby, that was always there for you when it seemed many people weren’t, that you know you were too old for but you slept with sometimes anyway
  • that perfect black dress that reminded you that you’ve still got it and fit you just right, but isn’t too tight around the belly as you bought it when you were being friendly to yourself instead of trying to suck in your gut and go
  • Your handwritten manuscript of your first novel that you never got published and always knew that you should type in, or at least scan as it reminded you of something pure, something that was there even before you developed your craft
  • your photo album that your grandmother painstakingly took over 5 years to make that you’ve carried through all your moves, across the country and back, to Europe and back, with her handwritten love notes that she wanted you to read over time, as you moved through stages of life, so you would remember who you are – and who she was.
  • your first book of sketches, that you often returned to to remember the child that you were, the mystery that the world was
  • the small statue of the Buddha that you got when you were in Thailand as a 20-something when you felt so lost in the world, but found Buddhism in a surprising way, and even though your statues have gotten finer over the years, that scratched and dented statue which trekked with you through jungles and to the tops of mountains always reminded you to ground, in you, always in you
  • that perfect coffee mug that your aunt made you when you got married that was absolutely the right fit for your hands, kept your coffee the perfect temperature, was the absolute right size for just enough coffee with a dash of your cream – not too much, not too little
  • your great grandmothers cocktail ring that she wore daily, but you only wore for special occasions and sometimes just around the house as you always wanted to keep it safe
  • the first love note your beloved ever wrote you, that was on your bulletin board with other photos of you two when you were younger, other quotes and poems you have collected over the years to remind you of times you don’t want to forget, or things you don’t want to forget – knowing that even the best of us often forget what we need to tell ourselves of, and remind ourselves of

And, you will remember other things that you lost, but you won’t remember them right away, instead, you will remember at some inopportune time when you are in the grocery store, on a business call, at a movie, about to fall off to sleep (finally!), and suddenly, it will pop in your mind – ahhh, that, I forgot about that…  It may be something minor or it may be something of great value, but whatever it is, it will strike a pang in your heart – and maybe even take you to your knees.

One day, some months after the fire, I suddenly remembered Mrs. Vogler’s stool. Mrs. Vogler, my babysitter when I was 8-10, was a crystal clear loving, calm, happy memory during a muddy time of divorce, death and other personal life chaos a young mind can’t quite grasp.  Mrs. Vogler made me and my brother matching foot stools formed from a sturdy circle of large Alpo dog cans, bound together, and then covered in a soft velour (and some kind of stuffing inside so we could sit our little bums on them). They were royal blue, with yellow tassels around the top and bottom and both had our initials embroidered on the soft top where we sat.  I loved my stool and carried it with me everywhere I moved, until I was 46.  The day I remembered her stool, I was somewhere and collapsed to the ground in sobs.  I still sometimes go looking for that stool – and then I remember again.

And, the problem is, anything that has monetary value, you HAVE to remember NOW as you will be submitting your detailed inventory list to your insurance company for not even a pittance of reimbursement for what it actually cost (and meant!) and anything you forget, you know you will be leaving money on the table (and for many types of policies – you will be leaving money on the table if you don’t replace it right away.  But who wants to replace all the things you lost right away as at that point you are devastated, exhausted AND HAVE NO WHERE TO PUT IT ALL!!!!! PS, check your policies, now!).

Not to mention, you have to spend precious time – and energy you don’t have – wracking your brain to make these endless lists.

Then there is what people say. Some well meaning people will say well meaning things as we tend to do when tragedy strikes. Their heart is in the right place, but they won’t really understand, or they are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, and they want to cheer you up, or have you remember “what matters” or they just feel awkward – and all of this will land as platitudes..

They will say things such as:

  • Well, you had insurance didn’t you? (Would you say that to someone who just lost their spouse?  I KNOW it’s not the same, but it’s also not what you say to someone who has just lost EVERYTHING suddenly, not by choice. We aren’t not thinking, oh yay, I get to go to the store now!  In the long run, I was happy to have some new clothes but some of those things I listed above are examples of things I still miss. Not as in actively, daily, but s I grow older, I think, it sure would have been nice to thumb through that album my grandmother made).
  • You can rebuild. (Yes, we know we can rebuild, but for some of us, our houses are our sanctuaries.  For some of us, we put our own blood, sweat and tears into building.  We spent years collecting those rocks that made the mantle piece, or we spent years renovating something that had been unloved for a while to turn it into the gem we knew it was.  Some of us even feel that our homes have souls.  SOME of us even feel guilt that we couldn’t save our home because we know it was alive in a way that we can’t always explain.  After debating for 2 years, we finally decided to rebuild – and it’s lovely – and it was never the same.  And, we don’t live there any more.
  • Trees and grass will grow back.  (Most trees won’t, not in our lifetime, not in many areas – like the towering pines of the Rocky Mountain west.  I don’t know about California trees as much.  There will be new growth, and it will be beautiful and fill you with hope and the trust in the cycle of nature – however – it will never be the same and it will retain it’s scars.)

Then there are the “at least” statements such as:

  • Well, at least you didn’t lose your _______ (fill in the blank)
  • Well, at least you are ok.  (We thank you for loving us that much that you are glad we are alive.  But, come on, we know to be grateful for that but it still diminishes how big a loss this actually is. Three of my neighbors died in my fire.  This is beyond horrendous to even contemplate!!!!!  I am eternally grateful to be alive – and I also have a right to the grief I felt around my loss.)
  • Well, at least you got your animals out (again, like the above, true – unless you didn’t and then that’s HORRIFYING and even more traumatic).
  • Time heals all wounds. (when are we going to learn that time only changes things, it doesn’t completely heal.  I have scars on my body from the most serious wounds I ever had, I have scars from things that didn’t even seem that big of a deal.  This scar will stay, but it will become a part of us (part of you), and you will always remember.  I don’t think about my fire all the time – but I always remember.

Then of course, I had the well-meaning friend, who as we stood in front of the pile of twisted metal, ash and other unrecognizable debris that once was my house, mused out loud, “It must be so freeing not to have any stuff.”.   

NO. Free was NOT what I felt at that moment.  Free, no no no not at all.  I felt DEVA-STATED.  NUMB.  IN SHOCK.  OVERWHELMED.  EXHAUSTED.  Not, free.  No, not at all.

Another line, which I DO believe, but I would rather say it (or at least be told it by those closest to me), is: you will be like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.  I now proudly wear a Phoenix tattoo on my right shoulder to remind me of that, and the life I have today is very different than the life I had before the fire.  I am a Phoenix.  I am stronger now than I was before the fire.  I do know what matters on an even deeper level. I am aware of how quickly things can change.  And, unless you know me and really love me and really get me – don’t tell me I will be a Phoenix before I am ready to know it myself (my preference).  It’s still a trauma, a loss, a devastating circumstance to go through. It’s totally disorienting and turns your world upside down.   Now, I am happy to know myself as a Phoenix.  Then, I just wanted that cozy pair of slippers, the handwritten love notes my mother wrote me over the years, and Mrs Voglers’s stool to plop down upon.  I just wanted to go HOME. 

The biggest thing I know from all the fires that I have walked through is – when dealing with tragedy, most of us need to be heard, and to be met where we are.  Us wise folks who have been on a personal growth path for a while have all sorts of tools.  We are great at giving to others, often we are less good at asking and receiving.

Strangers came out of the woodwork after our fire – people made us food, gave us homes to sleep in, created a fundraiser for us to help take the pressure off.

I needed an outlet regularly.  I needed it to be ok to mourn something that there ins’t a lot written about.  I needed to write – and when people read my mostly raw, sometimes angry, sometimes wise, sometimes ranting, sometimes angsty, often beautiful words, that came straight from my heart with no filter and when they responded to those words, I felt met.

I wrote all of this with my friend and colleague in mind – and now will share it on my page too with all those others who are just now facing this, or who have recently, or who have in the past and never got heard as they needed to be heard.

20 other women and I wrote a book about our experiences of either by losing our homes homes, watching neighbors lose their’s and having survivors guilt.  Send me an address and I will send you some books. For now, I send you words from my heart.

I’m so sorry you have had to join the club.

I hope you allow ALL OF IT (the snot, tears, scars, dust, ash, smiles, hugs, love, beauty, grace, gratitude, anger, screams, laughter, doubt, faith – and more – and sometimes all at one time) as we fire-walkers all learned to do.

And, yes, the Phoenix will rise, but let her do so in her own sweet time.

Some tips:

  1. Ask for and accept help.
  2. Don’t go out and buy a bunch of new stuff, not yet.
  3. Ask for someone to sit with you and help with your inventory list. (I can send you mine that has some basics as who wants to spend time writing down 1) 10 rolls of paper towels, 2) 16 rolls of tp , 3) 6 rolls of xmas wrapping paper, 4) 2 bottles of windex… you get my point.  Some of it is not worth thinking about.
  4. Have someone set up a meal planner/delivery service – www.mealtrain.com is very good!
  5. Keep this (or a) centralized FB page going so people can have updates and know how to help.
  6. Put different people in charge of different things – i.e.: we did a site clean up and a friend organized all the ‘workers’ as we decided to sift the ashes to try to find my husband’s wedding ring (never did) but found other treasures that look like they were from an archeological dig.
  7. Write, if you can.  It helps.
  8. Have people who will just let you cry and not try to fix it.
  9. Have people (maybe the same ones) who will make you laugh when you need it – which will be often.
  10. Escape from it sometimes – go to GOOD movies, get away.
  11. Get the insurance inventory done fast so you can GET DONE.
  12. It might not be good to work with an independent insurance adjustor instead of your insurance company directly but definitely educate yourself about it.
  13. And, on the other hand, don’t let yourself get screwed by your insurance company.
  14. Get a lot of love.  A lot a lot a lot.  No matter how strong, independent or savvy you are.
  15. Don’t tragedy compare!!!! Please.  We all know we have it better than most of Puerto Rico (or many other places) and we all know that everything could have been a lot worse.  But please don’t diminish your experience!

With love, your sister fire-walker, Kristen Moeller

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13 Responses

  1. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for your willingness to sift through painful memories to help those who are experiencing similar losses now. I hope this will be read not only by the thousands upon thousands of people directly affected but also by the millions who love them and aren’t sure how to best be of support.

  2. April says:

    Kristen,
    I actually remember when this happened to you. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon your page on Facebook many years ago. Many times in the face of these forest fires that happen in Colorado sometimes, I am reminded of your story. Thank you for putting together such a thoughtfully constructed article to help so many in need of a ‘voice of reason’ right now. Bless your beautiful heart ❤️

  3. Dawn OHara- Campbell says:

    Thank you,the fire that occurred for me was 33 years ago,My friend and roommate perished in the event.I have a part of me that is perpetually sad. A part of me seems emotionally frozen.Time has been a friend,blurring the memories, a whiff of smoke,the memories return.

    • Oh my that is so very traumatic!!! Of course those memories would return. I went to counseling (for a while!) after my fire. Have you sought any help? It’s never too late. That is a lot to carry.

  4. Bonni says:

    Thank you. We’ve heard many of these things after dealing with Hurricane Harvey. Too many friends are dealing with devastating loss because of that storm and all the mess that goes with it. My heart goes out to all those who have dealt with and are dealing with the fires. I’m not dealing with exactly the same thing, but I understand.

  5. Jennifer Cobb says:

    April,

    I have over a dozen friends who lost their home in the Sonoma County Fire. I would love to give them your book. Please advise how I can purchase them.

    Thank you,
    Jennifer Cobb

  6. Paula Alder says:

    Beautiful writing. Made me cry! Loss and grief are so personal. There’s no comparing, no standard. We deal with or losses in our own ways… No right or wrong. Thank you for sharing so vulnerably about yours.

  7. Anne Arthur says:

    I re-read your piece again. It’s so profound. As a grief counselor, I can only confirm what you say. Grief is more than losing someone or “something”.
    Thanks for sharing your innermost thoughts.

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