Wildfire has devastated our community. Lives have been lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and individuals and families dislocated. Firefighters have labored in high-risk conditions. Law enforcement personnel have protected our neighborhoods. Community organizations and countless individuals have stepped forward to offer refuge to evacuees. My heart goes out to everyone in my community who is suffering in the traumatic aftermath of the Wine Country wildfires. Their impact will be felt for years to come.
I’ve worked in the field of trauma recovery for over 47 years. I’ve seen that after a crisis passes, the steps to recovery and healing can begin. While recovering from trauma isn’t simple and will take time, I offer five suggestions for starting the process:
1. Allow yourself to grieve.
Give yourself permission to feel and express your grief. Grief includes feelings of loss and sadness, but also of anger, distress and frustration. Shortcutting the grief process postpones your recovery from trauma. Buried feelings don’t go away, they fester. Grieve your losses.
2. Deal with reality without succumbing to fear.
Traumatic experiences involve threats of danger and loss of control. Fear is a natural response in such situations but allowing your fears to take over will only make your situation worse. Discipline yourself to focus on taking one step at a time. Don’t obsess about the past or the unknown future. So much can seem chaotic and unpredictable now. Ask yourself, what is the next constructive thing I can do? Then act, keep moving forward.
3. Look for new opportunities.
During dramatic upheavals, it’s easy to lose sight of new opportunities. What have you been hanging onto which it would be better to let go of? In what ways would it be better NOT to go back to “the ways things were?” I have seen that trauma produces not only post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. Change can be for the better.
4. Find things to be grateful for.
What can you be grateful for? I’m not suggesting that you feel gratitude for pain and loss. If you and your loved ones survived the fires, be grateful for the chance to rebuild and start again. If you were evacuated and received support, be grateful for that. If you helped hurting people in our community, be grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.
5. Help others.
Probably the quickest way to temporarily set aside your own pain is to help someone who is suffering, who may have had a harder time than you. Or, reach out to our first responders who have worked hard to protect us. Continue to care for others and you’ll find your own burdens will feel lighter.
In my years as a therapist, I’ve seen all kinds of trauma – combat, crime, abuse, violence, even our recent financial recession. I’ve helped many people get through traumatic life experiences. I know it can be done. It’s urgent to start the process of recovery as soon as possible after the immediate crisis is over. My staff and I are committed to helping our community to develop resilience, heal and find hope. Let’s reach out, come together, hold each other up. My heart is with you.