Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2003 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Russell P. Friedman

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Raging Fires — Broken Hearts | 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 in Iraq and elsewhere have shifted out-of-focus for us as we hear and see what is 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.

Wherever you are in the world, you've probably seen some of the poignant interviews with people who've lost everything. Last night, one of the news shows featured a man being interviewed in front of the concrete platform that was all that was left of his home. Behind the man stood a solitary brick chimney, eerily upright like a tombstone to the home that no longer existed

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

Our homes are supposed to be the fortresses that protect us from the elements and keeps us safe. They house our collections of memorabilia that bind us emotionally to our family and our heritage. But we cannot 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

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We must not and cannot compare or rank the elements of a disaster of this magnitude. First and foremost is the physical survival of the people and animals in the path of the flames. But the moment they are all safe, the "stuff" they left behind takes on exponential value.

For those of you who have family or friends whose lives have been torn asunder by these tragic blazes, 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 all they have left. They will cling to them as fiercely as they would to survival itself.

What will help them most is for you to acknowledge and honor the feelings that are implicit and explicit in the events that have affected their lives. Here's a way for you to make it safe for those who lost their homes to talk about what happened: "I can't imagine how devastating this has been for you." That statement will allow and encourage them to talk openly about the emotions they are experiencing.

There's an even larger group of people who may have been in the path, but did not 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, we can help them preserve their dignity by encouraging and allowing them to tell the emotional truth without fear of judgment.

Russell P. Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation in Sherman Oaks, California [ ], and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve.Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Russell P. Friedman