“I know this: fire blooms, blooms again, marking us, dismantling what we believed inviolable. At times we can do nothing but record its stunning recklessness. Later, we sift through the ashes by hand.” ~ Nancy Reisman, House Fires.
Fossil records show that wild fires took place over 420 million years ago. Wild fires are a natural disaster. They are a phenomenon of nature and of man within nature. When our geography is wounded or destroyed a part of us is wounded as well. One plays off the other. Geography affects people and people affect the geography.Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides wrote, “My wound is geography…it is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Fire is about destruction, loss, grief, dismantling, decomposing, fragmenting, things falling apart and then somehow putting things back together again, but not in an identical way, because that is not possible.
Fire is about losing your anchor. We feel passionate about our geography. Our sense of place in the world is tied to our geography. One of the most immediate losses for individuals who live in communities affect by fires is the loss of their geography. It changed; it is now charred, disfigured, and barely recognizable. It is no longer the place of solace, nurturance, and interdependence. It has been harmed and cannot now care for you. You have to care for it, while also attending to your other wounds.
There is a link between people and land. The people who live on the land are insiders; it is their land and they have an intimate relationship with the land. People who visit the land from elsewhere are outsiders. They do not have the same relationship with the land. This may, for some, complicate the grief process, as many of the helpers who come to assist are from elsewhere.
Natural disasters include wild fires, but also tornado’s, tsunami’s, earthquakes, flooding, lightening strikes, and just about anything else that originates at the hands of nature or combined with man and nature. Man made disasters are made by man and include things, like torture, rape, terrorism, assault, mass murder, school shootings, genocide, and any number of other human rights violations.
Wild fires, along with other natural and man-made disasters are life events. All disasters are life events. Life events include all of our combined experiences that lead us from birth through death. Life events carry a responsibility known as loss. Every event, every situation has a marker of either a significant or less significant loss attached to it.
Birth is a life event, attending kindergarten, graduation from elementary school, graduation from high school, the best friend who moved, the sibling who died, the grad mother who just had her 97th birthday, the dog who ran away, the cat who got sick, the time you had the flu for three weeks, and the terrorist attacks are all life events. All event are life events whether they are good events or extremely bad ones. All life events are characterized by loss, because unless we are suspended somehow in time, we must move from an event to the next event waiting our attention. Loss requires change. Loss involves grieving.
We are accustomed to loss and we know how to grieve the losses that move us through a lifetime. Judith Viorst talks about loss in her book, Necessary Losses. She says,
“For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. and our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusion of freedom and power, illusions of safety—and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it always would be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal.”
Whether it be a wild fire, other natural disaster, or a disaster given you by another human being there are things we lose in all fires. Let’s look at what can be lost in a fire.
You may have lost your health or physical well being.
Were you hurt, harmed, injured? Was someone close to you injured? There are many physical repercussions including blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory issues, and the release of adrenaline and norepinephrine. Adrenaline and norepinephrine allow us to cope with overwhelming stress. What was your physical health before the disaster, before the fires?
You may have lost your psychological balance
What pre-existing mental health issues existed before this event? Did you have depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or another mental health concern?
You may be challenged by what the fires have brought to bear in terms of decision-making.
Did you suffer from smoke inhalation(or its counterpart in other disasters)? Have your cognitive abilities been affected? Is decision-making more difficult? Are you having trouble remembering things? How is your short-term memory?
You may have lost your emotional equilibrium.
Are you more emotional or less emotional? Have your emotions fled? Are you feeling too much or not enough? Do you feel you could explode? Are you angry?
Social Support Issues
You may have lost your social safety net.
We all need a social net to catch us if we start to fall. Who is there for you? Family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, your pastor, priest, and rabbi, your therapist? There is community loss. With everyone struggling to pull their life together, the sense of community is loss, at least temporarily.
You may have lost your job or had to leave your job or your job was destroyed in the fire (or its counterpart in other disasters).
One of the dimensions of wellness addresses our occupational wellness. When we lose our connection to how we interface with the world through our employment there is unsteadiness.
You may have lost your ability to produce income or your losses are more than your finances can handle. You may have repair bills, health bills, and additional things the fire (or other disaster) brought to you that require financial expenditure.
You may have lost your spiritual or religious bearings. You may ask why me? You may feel forsaken by God.
When life is more or less predictable people take comfort in feeling they must be doing the right things, because all is well. When things don’t go well or when disaster strikes it is not unusual for people to question themselves and wonder if they are being punished. Everyone is impacted spiritually following a disaster.
You lost your land, your physical surrounding, and your geography.
We depend on our physical surroundings to reflect back something beautiful about who we are. If the reflection we see is disfigured and blackened we are reminded about the loss, death, destruction, and we can do nothing but grieve. The environment gives to us and we are stewards of the land. Some people may feel they failed their land.
It is important to take an inventory where loss is concerned. It is important to allow for your personal narrative of the grief process. Fires engulf and take away everything known. Much can be lost in a fire. Rebuilding following a fire is possible. It takes time and it will not be the same as before. This is OK.
Be well and take care,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
Photo Credit: David McNew, Getty Images
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Last reviewed: 27 Mar 2013