As the rain pounds down in Southeast Texas and South Louisiana, the entire country has been glued to the news. Watching, worried about friends and family and in awe at the devastation Hurricane Harvey has wreaked on these areas.
I have to make a conscious effort to do other things because I keep having flashbacks of our time after the tornado hit. The initial feelings of helplessness. Of wishing I didn’t have to be an adult and make decisions. Of exhaustion. Of shame. (yes I know this one sounds weird but when you are a normally self-sufficient girl that has to accept donated feminine products & underwear you tend to feel a bit ashamed regardless of the circumstances.)
So while our experiences are different, I have an understanding of what the people in these areas are going through. You’ve woken up this morning (if you slept at all) in a shelter or at a relative or friend’s house and it takes just a minute to figure out where you are. You almost wish it was longer than a minute, because as soon as you realize where you are those feelings rush back in. Of helplessness. Of wishing you didn’t have to be an adult and make decisions. Of exhaustion. Of shame.
I am not a professional counselor or psychologist, but I am someone who has been there and can relate. I’ve been thinking over the past few days about what was helpful during those first weeks after the tornado and wanted to get some thoughts out there for those of you who are in the thick of it, as well as for those of you desperate to help.
For the survivors: First off Breathe. Take a few minutes to yourself. Hand the kids off to someone you trust, find a solitary spot (the pantry, a closet, a bathroom stall, or just around the corner of the building away from other people). It’s ok. You need some alone time. Take it. Don’t feel guilty about it (easier to say that do, I know). We underestimate the need for some breathing room until we are surrounded by well-meaning people and feel choked.
For the helpers: Give the survivor some space to breathe. Bundle the kids off to another room and keep them occupied for a while. Give the survivor grace to just sit and stare out the window without having to answer “Are you ok?” Because, they will say yes, but the answer is really no. So don’t make them do that. That makes them feel more guilty and ashamed.
For the survivors: Let people help! After a tragedy happens, your friends and family and community and even strangers will offer help. They are watching from the sidelines as you go through this and they ache for you. They often don’t know what to do for you. It’s ok to tell them what you need, or what you don’t need. And if you aren’t sure what you need, tell them that too! People want to help you – let them bring a meal by so you don’t have to cook, or have them help haul debris away, or accept the bag of clothing they put together for your kids. This was incredibly hard for me – and has probably changed me the most in this process.
For the helpers: The survivors are overwhelmed and often can’t articulate what they need because they just don’t know at this point. If the survivor is staying with friends or family, there is a now a strain on that person as host – if you are close and can drop-off items, things like snacks, drinks, toilet paper, paper plates/cups, can make a big difference when a household size doubles or triples for a while unexpectedly. If you aren’t nearby, contact the person hosting the survivor to determine needs – even something like picking up all the dirty clothes for the household, taking it to your place and bringing it back clean/folded is a huge help.
For the survivors: Grab a pen and paper. You’ll be making lots of lists over the next few days, weeks, and months of recovery. The first list to make is a list of phone calls to make. Home/Renters Insurance Company to make a claim, Car Insurance Company to make a claim. Think about your normal monthly bills and make a list of utility companies (electric, water, gas, phone, cable, internet, security company, etc.). Make sure you make note of the dates you lost services and date you call. We had companies continue to charge for services even though our home wasn’t there and had to get them to credit accounts. Ask if they can waive late fees and push due dates of current payments (many will do this if you ask). Call the mortgage company – they’ll need to know you filed a claim and will typically setup your account with a specialist who can work with your insurance company regarding claim payments. Note: regardless of whether your house is inhabitable or not, you have to keep making mortgage payments. Late payments or no payments might result in the mortgage company withholding payments to contractors so keep this in mind. Even banks, credit card companies, etc., will help you postpone payments for a month or two, do this if you can because worrying about what bills are due is not something you need right now.
For the helpers: Take that pen and paper list and type it up. Look up phone numbers. Make the phone calls for the survivor in the cases where you can. These calls are often very very hard. The survivor has to explain the situation over and over again on each call which is often agonizing. I remember making phone calls in my sister’s laundry room (so I had privacy) and feeling emotionally and physically drained afterwards.
For the survivors: Everyone wants to help. Everyone is asking. Answering everyone is overwhelming. Enlist a trusted friend to be your helper. Give them access to your personal email and/or social media accounts so they can answer emails for you, weed through to get to the important things and print electronic giftcards that people send. My friend Jen did this, organizing the emails and sending thank you responses. It was amazing how much weight this lifted off my shoulders.
For the helpers: If you are helping from afar, wait several weeks before you help. I know that sounds weird and you want to help right now, but hear me out. Whether the survivor is in a shelter or staying with friends/family, they are in a transitional place. They don’t have room to store anything so can’t accept donations, and typically aren’t making purchases other than essentials. Once they either get back into their home or move to a temp residence, then they will be needing a lot. For us, giftcards we could use online were a life saver. Amazon specifically because they have almost everything you would need and you don’t have to go to a store. When you have little to no clothes and no makeup and are emotionally drained, the last thing you want to do is go to a store. Gift cards for home stores were awesome as well – Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc. Also, if the survivors have children, iTunes cards or credit at online app stores is helpful. The parents can download apps and movies for the kids to keep them occupied.
And finally, for the survivors: Give yourself LOTS of grace. I’m still working on this one. I beat myself up a lot when I would get emotional about our situation. When I just couldn’t make another decision and shut down. When I didn’t want to drag myself out of bed because I was just drained. When I remembered yet another item that we lost and I had to open that darn insurance spreadsheet again. When I yelled at the kids even though I knew they were only acting up because their world was topsy turvy too. I felt like I should be stronger. Yet I look back and think about how I got though. If not by strength, then what? Whether you get through this crying or screaming or just in a haze, what matters is you are getting through. At the end of the day, you made it. One more day through this mess. Give yourself credit.
You Got This!
You’ve got it when you think it can’t be done.
You’ve got it when it feels like it’s just too hard.
You’ve got it when unexpected shit happens and you’re not sure what to do next.
And just a reminder…
You’ve got me and so many others there to help in any way we can.
We Got This!