Here in Southern California we are pre-occupied with the death and destruction accruing in the wakes of the multiple firestorms that are devouring our homes and decimating our landscapes. The ongoing tragedies around the country and the world have shifted out-of-focus for us as we hear, see, and smell what's happening all around us.

The televised images are almost too ghastly to watch. The "empathy factor" for those of us who are out of harm's way has ratcheted up to its highest setting, as each of us is compelled to wonder what we'd be feeling if we were the ones who had to leave all behind and run for our lives. For some of us, it is only a matter of blocks or a few miles that separate us from potential travesty, and that can shift with a gust of wind.

Survival of the people and animals in the path of the flames is the highest priority. However, the moment they are all safe, the "stuff" we leave behind takes on exponential value.

The current batch of fires somehow seems like an extension of the major fires we had in October, 2007. Wherever you were in the world at the time, you probably saw some of the poignant interviews with people who'd lost everything. One of the news shows featured a man being interviewed in front of the concrete foundation that was all that was left of his home. Behind him stood a solitary brick chimney, eerily upright, like a tombstone erected to memorialize his home that no longer existed.

"It's all gone - it's all gone," he repeated. The sweat and grime on his face mingled with the tears about a lifetime of lost possessions and their symbolic connections to the people and memories they represented.

Our homes are supposed to be fortresses that protect us from the elements and keep us safe. They house the collections of memorabilia that bind us emotionally to our family and our heritage. Sadly, we can't always make them invulnerable to the fierce elements of nature.

Though our memories are primarily transported in our hearts, and communicated with our words, we rely heavily on the stimulus of objects, pictures, and other reminders to activate our emotional bonds to the people and events that created and shaped our lives.

For those of you who have family or friends whose lives have been torn asunder by these tragic blazes, or any other tragedies, we would like to offer some guidance. You may feel tempted to say, "Don't feel bad, at least you got out safely." While that statement may be intellectually accurate, it's usually not emotionally helpful. Why not? Because it minimizes the emotional damage that is the underlying and over-riding reaction to the loss of identity and possessions in our homes, as well as the homes themselves.

Saying "Don't feel bad," to someone who does, has the impact of suggesting that their feelings aren't correct or important. In reality, at that moment, their feelings are often all they have left. They cling to them as fiercely as they do to survival itself.

We never really know the right thing to say.

It's true that we don't always know the right thing to say to people who've lost their homes in tragic circumstances. What helps them most is to have the opportunity to talk openly about the feelings they're experiencing. Here's something you can say to make it safe for them to talk about what happened and how it is affecting them: "I can't imagine how devastating this has been for you." That statement  encourages them to talk about the emotions they're experiencing, without fear of judgment. 

There's an even larger group of people who may have been in the path of the fires, but didn't lose their homes. Their fears will have been nearly equal to those who lost everything. They too need the opportunity to talk about what they felt. For them, you can introduce the topic this way: "I can't imagine how terrifying this has been for you."

In either case, you can help them preserve their dignity by encouraging and allowing them to tell the emotional truth without fear of judgment.

About the Author

Russell Friedman

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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