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Coping After the Fire: Advice from a Hospital Chaplain

Community Needs WILLITS, CA -- The events of last week have no doubt changed our communities forever. As fires get close to containment, the road to rebuilding and recovery is just beginning. And whether one was impacted directly by having to evacuate, losing a loved one or just being stressed from the uncertainty of it all, there are many emotions involved. 

Chaplain Dennis Long, spiritual care director at Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital (HMH) shares that taking care of one’s emotional and mental health needs are just as important as our physical needs. “During a disaster, people go into a survival mode and your instincts take over. You make it work, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself and your family. But after the adrenaline has worn off, and you start seeing the aftermath, all the stressors are present and the reality of what has happened begins the roller coaster of emotions.” 

Long, who offers emotional and spiritual support for patients and their families while in the hospital, says that the feeling of loss one encounters during a death in the family, or a getting a cancer diagnosis could also be the same as losing your property, a pet or a job during a disaster. 

Long, who also works with first responders and healthcare workers after a stressful situation, such as the death of a colleague or after a disaster response says it’s important to recognize one’s emotions and hold space for the grief and feeling of loss process; this applies to those directly impacted and those who have family members and friends who have been impacted by the fire. “Allow yourself to feel those emotions -- don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Turn to family, a best friend, or a counselor to share your feelings. Take care of yourself first then you can help others by listening, acknowledging that their feelings are normal. The best medicine is to listen and love them. Be respectful of their privacy if they aren’t ready to share their feelings.” 

Trained and certified in Critical Incident Stress Management(CISM), Long has many years of experience facilitating “stress debriefings”. This week alone, he has done seven debriefings for both hospital staff, first responders and community just this and his work is just beginning. “The goal of these events is really to allow people to talk and help them process the emotions. Letting them tell their stories allows them to start processing the disaster and the healing of emotions.” 

For those who were not directly impacted, the emotions are still overwhelming. 

“Even those who did not have to evacuate, or lost a home will still be going through some stages of grief. And that’s not surprising because we went through this as a community; that comes with being a small town, everyone knows everybody. So we are all affected in some way.”

For many, just feeling safe again might become a struggle. Going back to doing “normal” things will be hard, but Long says these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

“Your world has been rocked. No one ever plans on having to evacuate or losing their home; or just fearing for your family’s lives and your belongings,” he explains. 

It might be a challenge but Long says start maintaining a normal schedule, get plenty of rest, and exercise. Do not make any major life changes or decisions, but do make as many daily decisions as , much possible, such as what to eat. “These small decisions can give you a sense of having control over your life again,” he explains. 

A word of caution for well-meaning family members and friends, “The worst thing you can ever say to someone who was directly affected by the disaster is ‘you’re lucky it wasn’t worse,” or “I know how you feel” he shares. “A traumatized person is not consoled by these statements. Instead, one should just listen and love them. If you feel you need to speak, then say sorry that such a thing has happened to them and that you want to understand and offer help,” he explains. 

There’s also children to think about and Long says most of these tips work as well. All children need to be reassured that they are safe. The helicopter flying overhead, the sirens of an emergency vehicle can be scary. Your reassurance that they are safe will help their recovery. “Let the child talk, many times we tend to talk for our children speak for them and not let them really express who they are,” he explains. “Let the child express themselves without interrupting them. It’s like going back to basics, and just sitting down and asking your child, ‘how was your day?’”

Long says older children can cope more effectively with a disaster when they understand what is happening. “Let your child know that it is all right to be upset about what happened and don’t feel obligated to have an explanation for why such a thing happened. Remember, they have a sense of loss as well. Regardless if it’s something small as a toy, to them it’s important. Allow them to express their regrets over “secondary losses” (without accusing them of being selfish or ungrateful).”

Long offers other tips to help cope after a traumatic event such as the recent fires: 

• Speak to people or professionals who are willing to listen; “Getting it off your chest” is the most healing medicine. Reach out. People do care. 
• Beware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol. Numbing postpones healing. 
• Maintain as normal a schedule as possible. 
• Give yourself permission to feel rotten, and share your feelings with others. 
• Keep a journal; write your way through the sleepless hours. 
• Do things that feel good to you. 
• Think of three positive things that happened to you each day and think about them before you go to sleep
• If you are emotionally hurt, scary dreams or flashbacks can occur. Use the tools discussed and they should go away. If not, consult a counselor or chaplain. 
• Eat well-balanced and regular meals, even if you don’t feel like it.

For more resources on coping after a disaster, visit SAMHSA also offers a free crisis line for people who have experienced disaster, and this can be a good resource for those who need urgent support: 800-985-5990.