04 January 2015

Surviving Your Housefire: or how to help your friends and family

My beautiful House of Seven Gables replica canopy and heirloom hope chest.
I guess all I have left from our fire is advice...and support, of course. Everyone's experience is different - and reactions to the same fire will be unique, too. Like my husband and I have processed it in wildly different ways. We seemed to balance each other at the time and I can't imagine having gone through this without him.

Brief summary (our full story is available at the top of this site): our mentally disabled neighbor got mad at the people downstairs for telling him to be quiet so he poured accelerant down the hallway and on our doors, hoping to trap us inside. We were down the street picking up a few of my pregnancy cravings but the couple across from us had to climb out their fourth floor window and wait for the fire engines. The firestarter went back into his apartment but was later rescued by first responders. There wasn't enough to put him away and I hear he lives in our neighborhood still.

We lost everything...including both of my cats who huddled under the couch. Hidden. Dying together.

Now I'm going to pass on what I've learned from nearly four years of heartbreak and therapy for PTSD because several people have come to me asking about a loved one who is experiencing the devastation of a fire or natural disaster.

  • It is FAR worse than your worst nightmare or anything you've imagined. Remember to say, "I can't imagine." If you haven't lived through one you cannot imagine...no amount of empathy or brilliant imagination will be how horrifying it is...the smell, the soggy ashes sinking into your skin and nose so all you smell is the stink of things lost. Your feet squish on the floor which is now coated with soggy ceiling and your home is a menagerie of objects that have melted into strange shapes. Oh, that was my lamp?! Plastic hangers look like flower splatters on the floor. But it isn't real...yet.
  • SHOCK. They will be in shock. Let them set the tone. They might be cracking up or crying - or both at the same time. Find a point person/s to help organize things that will be needed.
  • Learn to accept help. Learn how to ask. It's humiliating at first. But people want to help. It makes them feel useful. I feel good giving things to people on a regular day--during a crisis I'm much happier if my favorite sweater that I never wear is making another girl feel pretty.
  • Accept help right away because people want to do the most in the beginning. The tragedy will pass quickly for them and they'll be shocked that years later you're still replacing things you never had or were donated and on their last leg.
  • Don't donate crap. I'm talking about the stuff you were going to throw out or give to Goodwill. I'd rather have one working pan than a dozen that are burnt. Remember, we've been looking at charred things for a long time. Clean is good. Finding out our style is nice too. Shoving a dollar into their pocket is one dollar more than they had before. It adds up. It's amazing.
  • Cook meals. Drop them off.
  • Do not give candles as a sorry-your-house-burned down gift (or when they get a new place).
  • Have someone keep a master list of needed items that the survivors can update with them.
  • Offer to help dig in the ashes with them. YOU HAVE TO WORK QUICKLY! Mold from the fightfighters' water-chemical mix is going to give it a healthy head start. 
  • Don't write something off as gone - it might air out.
  • Have someone look into a laundering service that can remove the smell of smoke from clothing. Makes sense right? You'll never think of it during a crisis. I heard about it a couple years later while reading Stephen King's book On Writing. He used to work at a laundromat where that was one of the things they handled. In Nowhere, Maine. I had clothes in seasonal bins that were dry but smelled so bad........I threw them out. I could cry even now thinking about how stupid that was.
  • STAGES OF GRIEF: absolutely. They will go through these - when? at their own rate. They are: denial and isolation; anger; bargaining (oh man that was a big one for me!); depression; acceptance.
Our fire happened two weeks before our wedding and then two weeks later my body gave out to stress and I delivered Tristan prematurely (at 30 weeks - story is also above). My contractions were killing him and he spent two months in NICU while we found a new apartment and tried to turn it into a home we could bring our preemie into. That was a separate trauma but the two were deeply intertwined. We also lost our jobs. I've never been through a harder time in my life.

Nearing my fourth anniversary I have finally moved into acceptance. I lingered in depression for a long, long time. Years. It still comes in waves but I've joined Prozac Nation and I am pro-active about working through my feelings. I went to a therapist that had specialized in PTSD/trauma survivors for more than 30 years. She had the experience...and I needed someone who understood. I felt petty crying over a lost home, dead cats, and a tiny baby who had breathing problems when compared to war veterans who'd seen...God knows what.

Every trauma is different but the emotions we go through are the same. They can vary in intensity but it's the same way out of the rabbit hole. She said some amazingly helpful things to me.

I still go in a few times a year. She set me on the path to being happier by challenging me to 30 minutes along outside every day and making a list of five things I'm thankful for daily. No matter how small. It can be: I like the way my bath gel smells (I do). Doesn't have to be earth shattering...but she said it's proven that people who do these things are happier.

There is a point I couldn't have done this...maybe. I got through each day as best as I could. I still hate that my Cabbage Patch Kids survived instead of my cats. But I'm no longer angry at them. They're still in a box. I have a bunch of paint and Sharpies also in a box. They survived so I felt I should keep them. Most of the paint is cooked. I will throw them out when I'm ready.

I still hurt so much...
but this is what I have to offer.

I am always here to listen if you think nobody is understanding.

I also encourage you to learn the art of asking which is something Amanda Palmer turned into a book recently for totally different reasons...though again, the feelings behind them are the same. She talks about it in this TED talk that is empowering if you're stubborn and want to do everything yourself. I have not read the book, though I feel I've written one in my heart. I will read her version one day.

My way - if you need something JUST ASK. I needed a charger for my iPod that I had with me in my purse that day. I asked on Facebook and a friend dropped off a pile of them at work that night. She happened to work at Apple.

If I needed something specific I just asked...oh, and Freecycle was a great resource for that. Join and ask.

What do I need now? My music. iTunes. I've gone digital. That's terribly hard to replace. The people who came to board up the windows so nobody can steal things...........STOLE! They stole all my CDs! It turns out the soot damage was too bad for them to work anyway...though they left my Tori Amos collection and three years later they worked all of a sudden. I'm happy I saved them.

That's all I can think of now, but I'll always keep this updated as things come to me...and they will. If you've experienced a loss like this please feel free to leave your advice in a comment.

Everyone is different - but I'm only me so this is what I can give.

Thanks, as always, to the firefighters who tried to save my world. You'll always be heroes of mine.



  1. this post got me wandering all over your site. After those travels I learned deep respect for a girl I don't even know. Your words and experiences cut deep to me- the little stuff too like BLW with Tristan- that's how I inroduced food to my boys too- thank you for using this space to share. my world has widened because of it.

    1. TJ, your comment really touched my heart--thank you so much for taking the time to read my ramblings and leave such a thoughtful note. That's so cool that you did BLW! You may have read that it didn't help broaden his palette but hey, it's a special needs thing now ;) Your family is beautiful!


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