This article is dedicated to all those who are being affected by the devastation in the Interior of BC. I hope this article will give you some helpful ideas around how to approach someone who has experienced tragic loss as well as what to expect to be feeling.
Losing a home is not to be equated with simply losing material possessions. A home is full of memories and items with tremendous sentimental value. The loss of a home could be equated to the loss of a loved one, and people will be grieving. Yes, people will need financial support and help rebuilding their lives in material ways; if you have the means to offer these basic needs, you should do that. People need to feel a sense of safety before attending to other needs; so, if possible, please help with food, shelter, and clothing.
In a situation like this the loss can also be emotionally devastating and a person will likely need a lot of emotional support as well. However, many questions arise, such as “How do I begin to offer that?”, and “What can I say?”.
Different people will respond differently to loss. Some people will turn inward and others will lash out. Some will respond by shutting down and becoming isolated and others will respond with a need to reach out and connect. Some will be consumed with getting their own needs met and some will respond with tremendous grace and compassion for others. Normal feelings include grief, sadness, depression, anger/rage, helplessness, loneliness, anxiety, fear/terror, feeling lost. On the other hand, you could also expect acceptance, hope, motivation, compassion, love, determination. You can also certainly expect a rollercoaster of emotions – a back and forth movement between extremes of all these emotions.
The best thing I can suggest is to give people the space that they need to feel what they are feeling and move through it. I know our first instinct is often to help by trying to alleviate a person’s pain if we can, but doing that too soon can leave a person feeling invalidated and alone. In the early stages, it’s good to accept that there probably isn’t much – if anything – you can do to alleviate their pain and so creating a space for them to be how they need to be to deal with what they are going through is one of the most helpful things you can do. There is no way to “speed up” the healing process. In fact, pushing too far too fast can be a block to healing.
Given that not all people will need the same thing, the best way to approach supporting someone is to offer love and concern. Let them know you’re there for them and, at the same time, don’t assume you know what that looks like for them. Different people will need different things. Some may want to have some time to themselves, others may want a hug and you might not know which to offer – so it’s best to ask. Ask them what they need from you.
If you are at a loss for what to say, there is no harm in being vulnerable and stating that. Think about your own experience and what it might be like for you to have someone honestly state “I am at a loss, I don’t know what to say. I know I can’t make it better, but I’d like to support you. What can I do to help?”. If you don’t know what they’re going through don’t say that you do. If you don’t know that “everything will be ok” don’t say that. Certainly everything is not ok now and sometimes words that are meant to comfort and support come across as trite. Comforting words are great, but again don’t try to “fix” their feelings or assume you know how to do that. Give them space to be how they need to be and ask them how they need to be comforted and supported.
This last part is directly for the first responders: We know and appreciate how strong and dedicated you are to the service of others. I also know that no matter who you are or how strong you are, this disaster HAS GOT to have SOME emotional affect on you. You are strong, but not a robot. Everyone needs help sometimes and this is the time to ask for help and accept it. You already belong to a network of people who would literally lay down their lives for one another. If anyone needed you, you’d be there for them. Your brothers and sisters feel this way about YOU too, so allow them to help you just as you’d want the opportunity to help them. Help each other. When the CISM team comes in and asks how you’re doing, be honest and accept the support.
To everyone: resources are available, please look to your community for support and ask your friends/family, employer and local authorities about where to find it.
Thank you for taking care of yourselves and each other.
About the author
Virginia is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with an MSc in Behavioural Psychology from the University of Liverpool. She has been working with people in the fields of mental health and addictions since 2001, supporting individuals and groups of people struggling with issues such as substance misuse, anxiety, trauma, stress management, mental health, and related disorders.