Thoughts on helping

Lakes Entrance, where I holidayed in 2018

Black Summer bushfires 2019-2020, from the perspective of a Black Saturday survivor

In the face of this monumental disaster, most of us want to help in some way. Some will fight fires, some will volunteer their time at relief centres, some will care for injured wildlife and many will donate to bushfire appeals.

Given the scale of the emergency, many people will know someone directly affected by the fires: first responders, evacuees, those who endure weeks of uncertainty about their homes, those who lose their car, their business, or their home and, most tragically, the bereaved.

I have been thinking about the things that helped me after my home was destroyed and the father of my children was injured on Feb 7th 2009. I have decided to share these thoughts as they may help others identify ways to help those affected by the current fires. Obviously, I am speaking from an individual perspective and what helped (or didn’t help) me might not hold true for the person you are aiming to help, so check in with them, or someone who knows them well to find out what is really needed. I have divided the thoughts into three vague chronological sections to help order my thoughts. They assume the person has lost their home.

The list of ways to help is long. I don’t anticipate or intend that any one person perform all these tasks. Share the jobs, make a roster. Play to your strengths – if you are a good listener then spend time listening. If you are a whizz in the kitchen, cook up some food. If you love real estate, help find a place to rent. If you love animals, take the dog for a walk.

Please don’t take lots of pre-loved stuff to relief centres. The experience after Black Saturday was that there was so much stuff that massive warehouses were needed to store it. Some of the goods were great, but other stuff was really only suitable for the bin. A great deal of time and effort was used up in sorting what would be useful from what needed to go to the tip. Many of the best items were snaffled early, by people who had place to store things and folks who had lost everything missed out.

Give cash, especially in the immediate phase. I cannot stress this enough. Give cash if you can. (Or put money into the person’s account).

Image shows burnt home in ruins with burnt forest behind.
The remnants of my home in Kinglake West, 2009

Immediate phase: shock and basic necessities

The person you are helping has a brain flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. They are likely to be hypervigilant, anxious, easily startled, not sleeping, picking at food or eating compulsively. They may have one clear fixed drive to do something (and that something may seem unwise). They will have difficulty concentrating and have poor memory as a result. They may find making decisions extremely difficult.

You can help by:

  • finding them a place to stay – offer a room, fund a motel and book the room, find a relief centre or other accommodation
  • giving them plenty to drink, trying to avoid too much caffeine and alcohol
  • providing food – light snacky things may be better than full on meals, things with decent nutrition, make sure they are foods the person is familiar with and likes
  • making sure they have somewhere to wash themselves and their clothes
  • ensuring they have a working phone with charger and credit
  • giving them toiletries (but check that they haven’t already been given 20 tubes of toothpaste)
  • taking them to the doctor or chemist to get any medications or dressings they may need, consider some eye drops for smoke-affected eyes
  • giving them some clothes, preferably new or near new – take them to a shop if they are up to it or ask them what they would like. Don’t throw out the clothes they are wearing – these may be the only things the person owns. Ask before you wash those clothes – bag them until you know it’s okay to do so, the clothes will likely reek of smoke.
  • minding children so that adults can have conversations
  • finding somewhere for any pets, and buy any necessities for the pets
  • making a roster/duty list with friends to provide support, without doubling up
  • letting the person’s employer know what is happening, only with the consent of the person
  • offering to be a central contact point for friends of the person who want information – again, with consent. The barrage of messages and phone calls can be overwhelming. 
  • avoiding giving them too much stuff – they have nowhere to put it

Most of all you can help by listening – to silence, to their story repeated many times, to anxieties about their community, to fears, to the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘I should haves’. You may need to spend hours listening and just holding space. You don’t need to find answers to the ‘what ifs’ and ‘I should haves’, you just need to listen – without judgement. If you can find specific information about the person’s community, do so. Divvy up the tasks of listening and information gathering so that there is one person available to listen and provide company. You might need to find a counsellor or take them to a doctor. (The VicEmergency site has some basic information with links: https://www.emergency.vic.gov.au/relief/#personal_well_being) You might need to debrief after all the listening, ripple out to someone less affected – don’t rely on the person you are helping to debrief your own trauma.

The kitchen that was

Next phase: dealing with insurers, finding a temporary home

Having a place to be private and to feel settled can be really important. Some people may prefer to stay with family and friends but this may only be a short term option. Having somewhere to feel safe and secure is important. There may be limited options near to where the person you are helping lived. They may wish to be far away from the smoke and the burnt landscape. They may want to be a close as possible to remain connected to their community.

  • Help the person make any insurance claims. Write down a list of the things that have been lost. You may have photos to assist. Some insurers want very detailed lists.
  • Help the person identify any payments or grants they might be entitled to
  • Help the person replace any lost documents, bank/credit cards etc.
  • Support the person you are helping to identify their needs and their priorities in finding a new place to live. Do they have insurance that covers rent for a year?
  • Make a list of all the suitable rental properties in the area they have specified and arrange a timetable to view the properties. Drive them to the appointments if necessary. Advocate with real estate agents. Be there as a second pair of ears. Offer to read over contracts with them.
  • Make a list of the items the person needs to start a new home. You could start with the bare bones – fridges, tables, beds etc are pretty universal, but ask about specifications.
  • Help the person go shopping and tick off the items on the list as they are bought. This is also the time when donations of good quality secondhand items can be really helpful – match them to the person’s requirements and try to keep them in line with the person’s sense of style if possible. Consider buying brands of small appliances the person is familiar with – it’s hard work trying to learn the way new TVs, microwaves etc work when they all have to be done at once with a traumatised brain.
  • Clean the rental place before they move in, if needs be
  • Help them move stuff into the new house, unpack it and remove the packaging for them
  • Mind children during the moving in
  • Do a big grocery shop (or coordinate among friends) to buy all the non-perishable pantry staples like salt, pepper, cooking oil, pasta, rice plus cleaning products, cloths etc
  • Make some meals for the freezer
  • Have a look in your odds and sods drawer and think about the things that people might suddenly need but that you mightn’t think to buy – scissors, bandaids, candles, matches, torches, batteries

Keep listening. Listen about the fatigue, the ongoing sleep disturbance, the anger, the recriminations, the survivor guilt, the displacement and the difficulty making decisions. Keep listening and find help if needed.

Image shows a suburban backyard with shed, metal slide and a neatly mown lawn.
New beginnings, a blank slate to make ours

Longer term: finding or rebuilding a permanent home, identity

How this plays out will unfold over time and involve more listening. There’s no correct way to re-establish your life after trauma. One factor associated with the best chance of recovery is to have rich social connections, so you can help by facilitating a person to be gently accepted into a new community and assist with them maintaining links to the place they have left.

In the longer term you can help the person navigate the rebuilding process, if that is what they choose to do. If they are relocating and wish to buy a home you could help them do some reconnaissance, come along to lend support at an auction or during the sales process. It may take years for the person to make a final decision, or they may change course. Support them and listen.

Losing everything you own can strip you of a sense of identity. That’s why in the early phases it’s important to give the person you are helping as much agency as they can take on when replacing lost items. A wardrobe of clothes and house of stuff that doesn’t feel like ‘you’ serves only to underline the loss. Some of the brightest moments in my recover have been the items returned or given to me that link me to the past: the book I’d lent a friend, the egg beater and Christmas ornament that were my grandmother’s, a book with an inscription in my mother’s handwriting. So if you have any items that the person had lent to you, return them. Find photos and give them on a USB or share via the cloud. Find some memorabilia. Don’t assume the person wants everything to be the same as before the fire. New editions of previously loved books might not be what the person wants. Perhaps they need some LPs or CDs? Perhaps a playlist of songs curated from a happy time? Perhaps a cookbook of family recipes? Perhaps some cuttings from your garden?

This is a long list and will not have covered all the ways to help. My advice may not be right for the person you are trying to help – always ask them or someone who knows them really well. Most of all, keep listening.

With support, the person you are helping will not only survive this disaster, but likely grow and thrive over the many years that recovery takes.

My love to you all. x

image shows sandy pathway through a tunnel of tea-trees.
Shelter the person as they travel their path

Do we really recover after disaster?

Image contains an olive green paper leaf with the following handwritten text: After the fires we put out our epicormic growth, captured the light, and grew. Some of us were seeds, blown on those stormforce winds. We grew in new places. Thank you for remembering. Kim

recovery (n):

  1. A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
  2. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

I’ve been pondering recovery, 10 years after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires (often referred to as Black Saturday) razed my home and community, changing my life forever. Contained within that opening statement is the obvious problem with using the term ‘recovery’ to describe the process that occurs following significant trauma. My life has been forever altered.

Recovery supposedly entails regaining possession or control of something lost, but it’s clear that I will never regain possession of mum’s pearl necklace. My home will never be rebuilt. The car was long ago mined for usable scrap metal. The rhododendrons will never again herald the arrival of spring on the mountain. What little remains of the garden has been under someone else’s stewardship for several years now. Instead, I have a necklace crafted from the nuggets found in the bottom of my charred jewellery box and a blue car to replace the green. My new home, 10km from the CBD, is approaching 100 years old and on some days the garden could feed our suburb. The miraculous rhubarb I transplanted from the mountain is especially tasty.

And our understanding of recovery also implies that we eventually return to a “usual” state of being, a pre-disaster state that was supposedly the pinnacle from which we fell. So, what to make of the fact that my health now is probably a shade better than it was in February 2009? Over the past 10 years there have been times when I was gravely ill and others when I was the fittest I have ever been. When the wind and heat flare I am anxious, unsettled and prone to tears. This is not very different to when I lived on the mountain, only now I fear for the lives of others, rather than my own now that I am away from the forest. I cry more often. We don’t go on holidays in the summer. My children grow into thoughtful, caring souls. I have a broad, rich new community of friends. I make jam for the school fête. My work is fulfilling. I write and perform poetry, a surprise development. There’s a new relationship, more than six years old now, which brings healing and laughter. My life bears little resemblance to what it was on the morning of February 7th 2009. I still prepare for disaster, since disaster seems inevitable, but I’m convinced that I will cope when it comes. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am the product of what is described as post-traumatic growth. Many would say that I have ‘recovered’.

But I don’t think recovery is the correct term. It can create impossible expectations of return to pre-disaster life and implies a tangible endpoint for a process that will be lifelong. Those who experience trauma are indelibly altered by it, for better or for worse, but mostly both. Perhaps a better term would be ‘evolution’. Or perhaps we could think of ourselves in the same way as the landscape, which has undergone ‘regeneration’.

The ‘From the Heart’ exhibition, which commemorates the February 2009 fires is free for those affected by the 2009 fires. The exhibits focus on regeneration and progress since the fires and would be suitable for most children.

https://museumsvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/whats-on/from-the-heart/

My thanks to Dr Alexis Harley for her editorial assistance with this piece of writing.

Preserves

IMG_1783I’ve been preserving. Bottling and drying Summer’s gentle form of energy – plums, tomatoes, peaches and zucchini. They’re resting in the larder – a little smugly perhaps, or is that me? It feels pretty good, you see, squirrelling it all away – preparing for the (supposedly) hungry months ahead. Though we had enough cauliflower to feed a suburb last Winter.  It’s not our immediate food security that fills me with the sort of warmth a pulse-laden soup does on a finger-chill evening. No, that beany warmth comes from the quiet pride in having produced this trove from the soil I’ve nurtured in our new home. It’s the fruition of a journey, if you will. And I’m preserving it. Keeping it for a future that daily seems more certain – as though the bounty in the cupboard ensures our steady progress. Although, in truth, the act of preserving probably reflects our growth more than that of the fruit.

This Friday will mark five years since Black Saturday. I hope you, too, have something to preserve.

Front Door is your space. If you have been affected by bushfire, we would love to hear from you, wherever you are now.

You can participate in many ways.
 
You can comment on this post by clicking on the speech balloon or the reply box. You don’t have to give your name but to prevent spam you will need to add an email address (this will not be published). If you would like to send us photos, video, words to upload onto the site we would be extra pleased.

You can contact us through our Facebook page or our contact form. If you use the contact form your thoughts will remain private unless you specifically give us permission to post them. You won’t be able to upload media but we’ll be able to provide you with an email address to do so if you’d like. And we’d love it if you would!

 Why don’t you send us a photo of your front door or something else (!) and tell us what it means for you?

We look forward to hearing from you.

Mending buttons

Mending buttonsI was just mending an errant underwire when I noticed an unopened packet of ‘mending buttons’ in the tub that now serves as a sewing basket. I vaguely recall buying the buttons in the first months after the fire. I guess I figured there might be a button emergency or perhaps they would be useful for the kids’ craft. I thought of the sewing basket I’d had since a child – frayed but still serviceable and the gorgeous large brown jar of buttons that had been my mother’s and hers before that. These objects reflect life’s patina. My home is warm, friendly, light, airy and filled with comfortable and beautiful objects but it doesn’t have its patina. There are only four and a half years of our history here. We belong but something is missing.

I’m thinking of those who have lost their homes in the latest fires. They are dealing with the enormous practical task of day to day living after finding yourself suddenly homeless, with your objects gone. Where will we sleep? How do we replace our documents? How do I charge my phone? I don’t have any clothes. I’ve lost all my prescriptions. There’s no tampons in the cupboard. Thankfully these current fires haven’t left people with the questions ‘Are they alive?’ ‘What’s happened to my GP?’. They will grapple with replacing the essentials, finding somewhere to live, negotiating work, fractious relationships and the behemoth that is traumatic grief.

I hope they, too, will one day have the space to reflect on something as small as a jar of buttons and realise how they have healed and will continue to do so.

Front Door is your space. If you have been affected by bushfire, we would love to hear from you, wherever you are now.

 

You can participate in many ways.
 
You can comment on this post by clicking on the speech balloon or the reply box. You don’t have to give your name but to prevent spam you will need to add an email address (this will not be published). If you would like to send us photos, video, words to upload onto the site we would be extra pleased.

You can contact us through our Facebook page or our contact form. If you use the contact form your thoughts will remain private unless you specifically give us permission to post them. You won’t be able to upload media but we’ll be able to provide you with an email address to do so if you’d like. And we’d love it if you would!

 Why don’t you send us a photo of your front door or something else (!) and tell us what it means for you?

We look forward to hearing from you.

Kathy’s front door

I lost my front door on 7 February 2009 – Black Saturday, along with the rest of the house to which it was attached. I remember being intrigued that such solid objects could be reduced to just the thick film of ash that carpeted the ground. When I lost my front door, I lost a sense of who I was and where I belonged. The welcoming act of opening your door to family and friends was no longer possible. There was no way in to that place of security and comfort that had sheltered me for the last thirty years. That place no longer existed. I was adrift without an anchor.

The rebuilding process has been a long one. As with any journey, we completed it step-by-step. Now we are in our new house. As each day passes, this house is gradually becoming our home. Our new front door is different. It is special. There are two doors, creating a wider opening to the world. The dark burgundy colour of the door contrasts with the light sandstone blocks of the walls. The curved glass inserts capture the light of the afternoon sun, wrapping it warmly around you like comforting arms. No longer adrift, I am where I belong.

Kathy Stewart.

Thanks Kathy, for your words and the photo of your new front door. Contributions like yours help us all to learn of others’ experiences and connect.

Front Door is your space. If you have been affected by bushfire, we would love to hear from you, wherever you are now.

You can participate in many ways.
 
You can comment on this post by clicking on the speech balloon or the reply box. You don’t have to give your name but to prevent spam you will need to add an email address (this will not be published). If you would like to send us photos, video, words to upload onto the site we would be extra pleased.

You can contact us through our Facebook page or our contact form. If you use the contact form your thoughts will remain private unless you specifically give us permission to post them. You won’t be able to upload media but we’ll be able to provide you with an email address to do so if you’d like. And we’d love it if you would!

 Why don’t you send us a photo of your front door and tell us what it means for you?

We look forward to hearing from you.

I am my front door

Since Black Saturday when my family members became silent, were missing, then gone I have discovered more fully and with deeper sense of self and satisfaction how to be my own front door.

MY SENSE OF SPACE AND PLACE
HAS BEEN SO FUNDAMENTALLY ALTERED
THAT
-I AM MY FRONT DOOR –

Discovering this has been a positive change…sometimes the journey on the other side of my front door looks like this photo…
 
Attached were two photographs.
 
In the first R sits in front of a carved tree laden with the yellow ribbons of remembrance to those lost in the fires. Her eyes reveal her sadness, her grief close to the surface – fresh, raw.
 
The second photograph shows R in front of a burnished timber wall, she is smiling, her posture relaxed and her eyes twinkle. A moment of recovery.
 
In both images her clothes are the same.
 
From R: ‘The happy photo and the taxed photo are to me both images of the resilience of my own front door. They are photos that capture some of the experience from both sides of the front door. The irony is that it is like a door on a pivot – both photos could equally be the front door as the world sees it from the outside or as I feel it from the inside.’

 

Front Door is your space. If you have been affected by bushfire, we would love to hear from you, wherever you are now.

 
You can participate in many ways.
 
You can comment on this post by clicking on the speech balloon or the reply box. You don’t have to give your name but to prevent spam you will need to add an email address (this will not be published). If you would like to send us photos, video, words to upload onto the site we would be extra pleased.

You can contact us through our Facebook page or our contact form. If you use the contact form your thoughts will remain private unless you specifically give us permission to post them. You won’t be able to upload media but we’ll be able to provide you with an email address to do so if you’d like. And we’d love it if you would!

 Why don’t you send us a photo of your front door and tell us what it means for you?

We look forward to hearing from you.

Sculptured trees

I’ve moved away from tall trees and bushland but miss that beautiful town that once was Marysville. I am in my new house now, though I still can’t call it my home – yet. My daughter is a silversmith and sculptress so she made these steel trees for my front door. It reminds me of the trees which surrounded my lost home and symbolizes a new beginning.

 

Pam Ellis

Thanks Pam, for the picture of your lovely blue door with its treed adornment.

Welcome. Front Door is your space. If you have been affected by bushfire, we would love to hear from you, wherever you are now.

You can participate in many ways.
 
You can comment on this post by clicking on the speech balloon or the reply box. You don’t have to give your name but to prevent spam you will need to add an email address (this will not be published). If you would like to send us photos, video, words to upload onto the site we would be extra pleased.

You can contact us through our Facebook page or our contact form. If you use the contact form your thoughts will remain private unless you specifically give us permission to post them. You won’t be able to upload media but we’ll be able to provide you with an email address to do so if you’d like. And we’d love it if you would!

 Why don’t you send us a photo of your front door and tell us what it means for you?

We look forward to hearing from you.