Today I had a conversation with a friend who’s lived on the island of St. John in the USVI for over a decade. They’ve raised their children, earned a living, and been a part of the island community for over a decade. Hurricane Irma devastated their home and everything they knew. For a few days, nobody heard from them until they were rescued by an evacuation team. The woman and children are staying with relatives in the states, while the husband remained behind to help with recovery efforts on the island. With a new hurricane (Maria) bearing down upon them, fears are escalating.
The conversation was heart-wrenching. Several times during the chat her sobs stormed through the phone line, making landfall in the pit of my belly. My belly sprouted a geyser that shot out of my eyes. I’m not an expert on trauma, but as a therapist, I do have a fair sense of what people need as they move through this event.
If you have loved ones who’ve been through this, and especially if you are providing shelter for people displaced by any of the recent storms, please consider the following list as a guide for how to be the best host:
1. It’s not over yet. Just because the hurricane has passed does not mean the trauma is over. The person/people you’ve given shelter to are no doubt relieved to be safe. However, keep in mind that the trauma is an ongoing phenomenon. You’ve now got people in your home who’ve just lost their home, their job, and any sense of familiarity in their lives. It’s no different than if they’ve just returned from a war zone. Very likely they’re just now finding out about friends and loved ones who’ve lost their lives and homes. Until recovery efforts are complete, every day is a walk through a mine-field for displaced people.
2. Pets and wildlife are part of the family. Very likely, the people you’ve taken into your home have also lost pets and animals part of their daily ecosystem. You cannot underestimate the impact of such loss. The loss of pets is as traumatizing as losing a family member. The grief over such loss can be profound and may take quite a long time to settle.
3. Trauma is ongoing. A warm bed is just the start. If you’re offering shelter to a displaced person, a safe abode is just the start of what they need. It’s reasonable to feel you’ve done enough by opening your home to them, and indeed it’s an act of great kindness. But you must bear in mind that you are taking in real-life refugees who’ve been traumatized. The trauma doesn’t end just because they’ve got a safe place to lay their heads. You must be prepared to deal with people in the midst of an ongoing trauma. That can be challenging, but it comes with the territory the moment you open your door to them. Be prepared to take care of yourself as you make space for anything to unfold.
4. It’s not about you. No matter how connected you feel to the location that was devastated, if you didn’t lose your home and/or loved ones, you cannot understand what they are going through. You might own a vacation spot that was wiped out. You might have friends and family down there that you get to visit once a year. You might be upset about what happened, and you may be suffering peripheral effects. Nevertheless, to the person who’s been displaced and now sleeping on your couch, keep in mind they are deep in an altered state of suffering. Be mindful not to make the conversation about you and your losses.
5. Presence, not entertainment. Most of all, the displaced person needs to be held in the state of presence. This means just being present to wherever the person’s at in that moment. They do not need to be entertained. They do not need to be made to feel better. They do not need philosophical reframes. And most of all, they do not need a spiritual bypass. The time for all of that will come. That time is not now.
6. Magic words: “What do you need? How can I be here for you right now?” Don’t assume you know what they need, even if you’ve grown up with them. Every day, at every turn, ask the question.
7. Listen: They will tell you what they need.
8. Unprecedented patience. Bear in mind that a person undergoing persistent trauma may not know what they need in any given moment. It is quite likely they will waffle – all in the space of one hour – between grief, anger, survival guilt, incredible fear, and disassociation. They may even get agitated by the question. That’s okay, keep asking. Remember they are going through an unprecedented trauma, and have no roadmap for how to navigate this challenge. They are in the midst of trying to find equilibrium. It takes some time before people find a new center again. That process is organic and can take months if not years. Be prepared to practice unprecedented patience every day they are with you. Continue to let them take the lead in crafting their experience.
9. They may not be ready to “feel better”. The impulse to make people feel better is natural. Ask yourself the question: is that more for them or is that for you? If you are not able to tolerate being around people in a state of suffering, do yourself a favor and set up some support for yourself while they are staying with you. Your efforts to make them laugh or feel better may be more about wanting your own relief. That can feel controlling to a person in the midst of trauma. As much as you want them to feel better, the best gift you can give to a person in this sort of trauma is to give them a soft place to be exactly where they are.
10. They may not be ready for “normal”. Normal doesn’t exist for a person who’s been displaced. They are seeking a new normal. Healing will come when they accept their old normal as gone and allow a new normal to emerge. Until then, everything will seem weird.
This is far from an exhaustive list. To learn more about how to support survivors of natural disasters, and get support for yourself, please visit the following links:
Psychological First Aid App for assisting people in disaster areas: PFA Mobile.
Hurricane refugee support: https://www.gcir.org/programs/2017/09/hurricanes-harvey-irma
Caregivers Support: http://www.netofcare.org/content/your_needs/emotional_needs.asp
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