Helping a Friend After a Fire or Disaster

I’ve been asked to write this post, so here goes.

Say your friend loses her house in a fire. Or, someone you know gets washed out in a flood halfway across the country. Or your sister’s house gets badly damaged in a hurricane. Whatever the disaster, life will change for those people in an instant. They’ll have needs like they’ve never imagined.

And, frankly, I have absolutely no idea what they would need or want. But after losing my house in a fire and being homeless for two months, I have a few guesses.

The Red Cross gives me a Mickey Mouse doll. Aww.
A possession! Thank you, Red Cross.

Kind words. Friends didn’t even have to offer help. In fact, sometimes that was more stressful (see below). Just reaching out was enough. For the first two weeks, if you didn’t just live through a fire, or put out fires professionally, I had lost the ability to talk to you. A well-meaning friend tried to put together a dinner party, but I had to cancel. Unless everyone there wanted to talk for hours about asbestos contamination, I wasn’t going to be very good company.

A few ideas:

Facebook. It was my lifeline to normalcy, and I could engage with all of my friends at once whenever I had time. Simply posting a note saying you care is plenty.

Calls and texts. Know your friend might not have the time or energy to get back to you right away, but you want to let them know you care. Feel free to say so directly.

Offers to talk. If you’re a particularly good listener and have a few hours you can spend uninterrupted to listen to someone complain about really awful shit, go ahead and offer it. If not, just a note is fine. More than anything, a disaster survivor needs stability and reliability, so don’t feel the need to offer something you won’t be able to follow through on.

Memories. If the person lost everything, they’ll miss their memories and family heirlooms the most. I couldn’t care less about the month’s-salary organic mattress and bedding I lost (wait, no, that’s a lie; it sucked), but I spent hours calling around to see if I could salvage my grandmother’s chair, and I cried whenever I looked at my great-aunt’s sooty water-covered hand-embroidered pillows I’d been using as my meditation cushions for years. (She died about three weeks after the fire, making the loss that much more painful.) I feel lucky that I lost just my loose photos and not my photo albums, so I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to have a complete loss. A few things you could do right away:

Photos. Do you have any digital photos? Put together a CD or flash drive with any photo they might appreciate.

Objects. Did you go to a concert together? Could you part with the ticket stub? They might not take you up on the offer, but just being reminded that their memories aren’t completely wiped off the planet could be enough.

Errands. I know I’m a little touched in the head, but I love organizing large projects and completing tasks. Give me shoes that need to be repaired and a Target run, and you’ve just made my Saturday. And even I got completely and utterly overwhelmed.

This is how busy and stressed you are when your house catches fire: my downstairs neighbors were trying to take care of their two-year-old son and find housing, and the dad didn’t change his socks for almost a week. I had a $500 voucher to buy new work supplies waiting for me at the Red Cross office downtown, but I was too busy to pick it up before it expired. I had so many open offers to help, but I didn’t know how or where to start. I can guarantee, you will be less scattered than the disaster survivor, so if you could take even two extra minutes to think through what they might need, these will be two minutes they don’t have. Here are a few ideas:

Concrete offers: I just heard about a woman who received this call from a friend after a disaster, “I’m at Target right now and I’m going to pick you up something. I can either guess what you want or you can tell me what you most need right now.”

Gift cards: I feel incredibly lucky that I had some insurance, a helpful family and a good job so I didn’t need money, but I’ve read many post-disaster blogs that raved about getting gift cards.

Kids: If the survivor has kids, quadruple their stress levels. Anything you can do for the kids, the better. Offer to babysit or buy them things. Donations can be more stressful than helpful, so think time vs. physical objects.

Details. This is the one most people don’t get. Try to give as much detail as possible when you’re offering help. I’ve read plenty of disaster and fire relief blogs, and it was nearly universal. While the sentiment behind, “Let me know how I can help!” is positive, the offer will fall flat unless you back it up with details. The owner of a massage studio I’ve frequented for years sent me an email saying: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do!”. Well, in fact, yes; I know exactly how you could help me relax, but there’s no way I’m going to ask.

Asking for help, even when you most need it, is hard. This goes along with errands above, but again, try to put yourself in the person’s shoes and guess as best you can what they might need. The more concrete help you offer, the more the survivor will know you’re serious. I can assure you, for disaster survivors (and, well, most people in general) modifying a concrete offer is easier than inventing one, and it gives the survivor parameters. Are you offering $10 worth of help or $1000? Do you have time for a two-minute phone call, or a weekend of babysitting? Give them an idea of what help you’re willing to offer and they’ll know what they can.

A few of the offers that still make me tear up just thinking about them:

From Linda, my height-mate: “I have tons of clothes in my closet I don’t need and would love to make room for more. Really, I insist. I’ll be home Wednesday and Thursday after 4pm. When can you come over?” I then spent three hours in her living room — which she had decked out like a couture boutique complete with a full-length mirror and sections for cashmere sweaters, dresses, belts, camisoles and a shoe display — while she dressed me every which way.

From Greg and Christine next door: “Romeo (my cat) hangs out here with our cat Scout all the time. He’s practically family. We can watch him for as long as you need.” I also ran out of my smoking bedroom, where I’d been in bed sick for two days. The shower and load of laundry they offered me after the fire helped bring me up one entire life-level of normal.

From a new friend Laurie: “I’m serious about offering help. I’m not working right now and I have plenty of time to help with anything you need. I’m pretty good at x, y and z.”

From Leora and Eric: “Yes, of course all three of you can stay at our house together this week while we’re on vacation.”

Understanding. Over the past two months, if I know you personally, I can almost guarantee you I have disappointed you in some way. I have probably dropped the ball on: calling you back, keeping plans, thanking you properly, or being a supportive friend. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than basic survival. Two months later, I’m just now edging into the second layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (from physiological to safety). Upper level needs? Pshaw. Not only do I not have time or energy for my hobbies, I can’t even remember what some of them were. Didn’t I used to bake? I think so. I remember back in the long ago time when I used to practice ASL or Italian, but I can’t even imagine having those levels of concentration to take care of myself on those upper levels until I have a stable home again. Try to understand it’s all about them for a few days or weeks. They’re in triage mode and probably don’t want to hear about how you had a horrible day because the dog next door was barking. They’d love to have a next door.

If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments.


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