Trauma, grief and resilience
The firestorms that burned through our county changed the lives of many forever. Some lost loved ones, pets, livestock, homes, transportation, or even jobs, or know of people who have lost one or the other, or all of the above. Some folks were under mandatory evacuation for a couple of weeks and have yet to return to a sense of normalcy. Others were able to remain in the safety of their homes and continue with their regular activities. Many live in hotel rooms now, or have to witness on a daily basis the devastated and silenced neighborhoods, and some won’t return home because of it. Some of us wonder every day: Where are all our neighbors who were displaced? How are they faring? Were they able to access assistance? Do they have the support of family and friends? There are those for whom such thoughts rarely cross their minds, and others who may experience waves of survivor’s guilt. It takes all kinds to make a world, and, thus, our experiences with this disaster constitute a wide spectrum between extremes.
Our reactions and responses to this traumatic event are equally diverse. Most of us were affected in some way, whether we are able to recognize it or not. For some individuals, or groups, the firestorms added insult to injury; meaning that they were already dealing with the effects of multiple prior trauma, or other difficult life circumstances.
When normal grief and post-traumatic stress reactions persist and/or impair our capacity to meet daily responsibilities (i.e., work, school, home), seeking professional healthcare support can be a good idea. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very real. There is no shame in seeking help, on the contrary. Please note that for some people, symptoms may surface a few months or even years later. It is essential to the recovery journey that we not judge our personal processes and that of others, now and in the long term. The human capacity for resilience and adaptation in the face of adversity also varies from one individual to another. Assisting each other, and our communities, through these challenging times nurtures resilience and can, in turn, help mitigate the impact of traumatic stress. It is easier to recover from natural disasters than from man-made ones, and it depends on one’s capacity to face and adapt to adversity, and on available resources, i.e., social support, faith.
Trauma is an injury to the soul, to one’s core sense of safety. It can disrupt internal and external rhythms, and, challenge us biologically, psychologically, socially and/or even spiritually. Even though the fires have been over for more than two months, they continue to affect many of us. What we are experiencing are most often normal responses to abnormal events. We may still have memory loss, nightmares, feel sad, irritable, angry, restless, scared, more tired than usual, or find it hard to concentrate. Children’s behaviors may have regressed (i.e., bedwetting, clinginess, tantrums). We may be hyper-alert and still react strongly to the sound of sirens, the scent or sight of smoke, or strong gusts of wind, as if those terrifying moments and days were here and now. For a while longer, Sunday nights may be associated with the onset of the disaster. The night after the beautiful Glen Ellen Village Fair… That is called trauma anniversary and can present in more or less subtle ways.
So how do we take care of ourselves over the weeks, months, and, for some, years, to come?
We can focus on the present moment, one step at a time, and work on regaining a daily rhythm through resuming recreational activities that bring us satisfaction (i.e., hiking, dancing, yoga), and the little rituals that bring us comfort. Art is a pillar to healing, and so are exercise and a healthy diet. Let’s indulge in these, and take the time to pause, breathe in and out slowly and deeply, and quietly notice our heartbeat or pulse. Regulating our whole being will help others as well. This is particularly important for anyone caring for children. At the right time and place, it is helpful to allow oneself to fully feel emotions as they arise, being mindful to let these waves move through, and thus not getting stuck in them. Being kind to self goes a long way, and this includes accepting that, for now, we may not be able to accomplish as much each day as we normally are capable of. It’s best to stay away from using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope, as these can intensify difficult emotions. Avoid traumatic news or movies as these can re-traumatize, and let’s make a continued effort to share our stories, listen empathically to those of others, validate each other’s experiences, and offer assistance where and when needed. Putting things in perspective, and being grateful for the simplest of things is also beneficial.
Human beings can be astonishingly resilient, and they need each other. We are social beings. We came together as a community through a disaster, and we can remain a community as we heal. Take care of yourself and each other. One day at a time.
I would like to acknowledge all those who lost so much, all lives lost, and all who helped and continue to help through this challenging period.
Resources: Redwood Empire Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (RECAMFT); Redwood Psychological Association (RPA); Lomi Psychotherapy Center; and Psychology Today (enter your city/zip code for a list of professionals)
Dr. Katherine Hargitt is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Psychotraumatologist with a private practice in Sonoma Valley.