September 3, 2016
Last week two parts of the world shook, another part was under water and yet others were on fire. Add to that ongoing conflicts and crime and one might say it was a bad week. A week full of death and destruction. Families and communities ripped apart, towns that are essentially gone. A week of loss.
Unfortunately, more weeks than not are bad weeks. We become so inundated with tragedy that it takes something really awful to get our attention anymore. The videos of rubble and victims and funerals sort of numb us to the reality of the situation. For those involved it’s likely the worst day of their lives. The fire that destroyed their home, the rubble that buried their family…the loss is real. It’s tangible. There’s no replacing what’s lost. More than stuff, the lost are memories and futures yet unwritten. The loss leaves a gaping void in the survivors, one that no amount of money or material goods can possibly fill.
In a disaster, more so than “everyday” tragedies, the loss is collective. The entire community shares the loss and the ripple sweeps across families, towns, regions and nations growing less tangible and more surreal the farther from the epicenter it travels.
In my line of work tragedy has been an everyday occurrence. When you’re a paramedic, nobody calls you on a good day. They generally only call on exceptionally bad days. As an emergency manager the direct interaction with loss is less frequent, but on a much larger scale. For those of us who choose to spend our lives preparing for and dealing with loss it’s important to maintain an emotional detachment. You can’t focus or be effective if you don’t. Make no mistake though, every interaction leaves a mark. Sometimes you look back and know you made lives a bit better in the middle of so much loss. Other times all you can do is cry.
Yet we carry on, we human beings. The survivors and the responders, indeed the entire world, we move forward. Go on to clear the physical and emotional rubble and live. Mostly.
Unfortunately, there are always a few who succumb and lose even more to drink, drugs, depression or suicide. Whether it’s the inability to recover from one catastrophic loss or a lifetime of carrying the loss of others some just can’t move on. That’s not a judgement. But for the grace of God go I, as the saying goes. I’ve been lucky in that I have a wife that props me up, kicks my ass, and stays with me no matter how bad the day. Honestly, without her who knows where I’d be.
Our understanding of loss and the impact on individuals and communities has grown dramatically over the years. We’re finally starting to plan for and put resources in place to help people move through the loss in different ways. See, that’s the thing – we all deal with loss differently. Some talk, others don’t. Some get up and clean, others need to sit amongst the rubble for a bit. The point is that we recognize that people are, well, people, and need different support at different times. There’s no shame in feeling loss or needing help.
That support and help comes from a variety of places, starting with each other. Families, friends and communities rally together in that shared loss and help each other move through together. Government is the least of it. So while we plan for mental health teams and emotional support, we need to recognize that the best thing government can do is provide the safety and security necessary for a community to heal at its own pace. Clear the roads, secure the area and put out the fires. Do those things and people will tell you what they need in terms of emotional support. People are naturally resilient; respect that.
So the next time you watch a video or read the news about a disaster on the other side of the globe remember those are real people, suffering real loss. It may be surreal to watch carpet bombing in Ukraine, but on the ground it’s pure hell and the lives destroyed are real. The soaking wet dog rescued in the floods was likely part of a family that’s just lost everything, including their four-legged child. Pray for them, those in the rubble and those who go to help. Pray for them and look around, for tomorrow you may very well hope they’re praying for you.