Written by Stanley Ly, MA, LPC, FSAP Director
In the coming days and weeks, we will learn closely about our friends and colleagues who were directly affected by the Marshall and Middle Fork fires, including those who lost their homes completely. In the ugly wake of this destruction, we as a society must do everything in our power to assure those who now have to rebuild a life after the disaster that they are not alone and that they will not be forgotten. We can do this by showing up for our friends and colleagues.
If you find yourself in a position to reach out and offer support, below are nine ways to offer help. I have tried to offer a wide range of tips for support that fall within different resources, means, abilities and skills.
Above all, instead of letting the thought slip, I hope your compassionate longing to help is responded to. The kindness of friends, colleagues and strangers is the cure we need right now.
Be a safe space for emotions
Listen for understanding. Deal with your own discomfort to avoid implicitly asking your friend to deal with your discomfort as well as their own feelings. Resist the temptation to “offer the bright side,” which can often feel invalid or minimizing.
Listening for understanding means putting your own agenda aside so you can be fully present in creating emotional security for your friend.
Here are some suggestions on what to look for if you have trouble finding the right words:
“What do you have on your heart and mind today?”
“Thank you for honestly sharing how you feel. I’m here for you.”
“What feels overwhelming today? I love you and want to help how I can.”
It is well known that disaster survivors can observe an initial flow of support followed by a very sudden fall after the news cycle continues.
To help soothe your worrying thoughts, “Is it too late for me to say anything right now? What if I get a bad memory?” My advice is this: If compassion drives your longing to reach out, do not withhold that gift. Reach out, show up and be prepared to listen with understanding and respect their “Not right now, thank you” if you hear it. Deal with your discomfort and be thankful that your friend trusts you enough to handle their “No”. Thank them and ask if they want another outreach contact sometime later.
Help clearing up debris
If you are invited and able, and the local authorities give your friend access to search for ashes, you can be an anchor for them as they potentially go through waves of intense emotion.
One’s home is precious and filled with sacred memories and experiences. Treat the grounds of their home with respect and care. Allow them to take the lead in guiding you and giving guidelines on where and what to go through.
Be just as willing to work in peace if necessary, as much as you are willing to stop everything to provide emotional support. Remember what it means to be invited to this place.
Always seek and follow guidelines outlined by local emergency services before you start clearing trash – there may be harmful toxins you need to protect yourself from.
Donate something they love and need
Donations are wonderful, but at a time when life has gone back to basics and the world is spinning too fast, your friend does not need another box to sort in or even drop off at a donation site because it does not meet their needs.
One thing is to receive a precious warm winter jacket that makes someone feel cozy and cared for because their favorite jacket has been lost, and something else is to receive boxes of used and seemingly random things that they have neither the time nor the space for to control.
You can probably assume that something is required: money and meals. But for everything else, how do you know what they need most? Ask.
Be very intentional and conscientious if you donate used items. If you offer to buy brand new items, do your best to fulfill exactly what you want for them, or offer gift cards if you are unsure.
Offer childcare and foster care support
Parents and those who have dependency responsibilities, e.g. for an aging parent or a sibling with a disability, could greatly benefit from a few hours of uninterrupted and guilt-free time.
Children may experience shock, despair and confusion and may need affection and comfort. You can help your friend’s children feel loved by taking them out for a meal and pampering them, playing a game with them or inviting them to arts and crafts, movie night or a play date or overnight stay with your family. This has the added benefit that parents can work without having their attention shared between their children and navigating other areas of responsibility.
For friends who have adult caregivers living with them, you may be able to provide support in several ways. For example, you can take them to their doctor’s appointments or therapies, make a meal that they can enjoy, or just spend time providing care.
Your friend may argue that it is too much extra work to instruct you on the intricacies of how to fit your family member into just a single event. If you can not commit to weekly or monthly care, you may offer to help organize a small group of people who are willing to provide support. You can help by writing your friend’s guidelines for care, thus preventing them from having to retrain every next caregiver.
Offer to help with practical needs, such as moving and cleaning
Your friend may need to move several times before landing in a semi-permanent housing arrangement, which means they have to pack and unpack several times. Borrow your vehicle to help with the moving process. Swap the weights you lift weekly at the gym for boxes and supplies for a day or two.
You can help make their housing situation more inviting by coming in with cleaning supplies and refurbishing their temporary home. A place can feel much more receptive when it feels clean. Or if you have the skills to troubleshoot appliances, you can make a world of difference by, for example, repairing a broken down dishwasher for families with children.
Assistance with administrative tasks
The less enticing but often overwhelming other side of disaster and tragedy is paperwork and administration. Those who lost their homes in a fire will have to engage with insurance companies and their policies, hire contractors, deal with banks and mortgage companies, talk to lawyers, coordinate with utilities and at least replace publicly issued documents.
As part of the process of recovering losses, your friend is likely to have to complete a personal property statement, which can be a daunting and emotionally shocking task.
Help your friend by helping them create structure in the warehousing process. This will help prevent overwhelm. You can do this by imposing breaks or meals to break the stress, or by doing some prior research by their insurance company so that it knows what information is needed to file a claim. Offer to make parts of the paperwork or statement yourself. Whatever you can do to ease some of the burden, it can be a massive lift of stress from their shoulders.
Ask how you can help even if you are not local
Your friend’s neighbors or local friends may even be covered if they were also affected. Remote support can become so much more valuable as a result. If you are in this position, ask directly and specifically for a list of ways you can help. You can also have your own ideas, such as organizing meals or gift card donations. Recruit your own community to help when appropriate.
Remembering important anniversaries over the years, such as birthdays and holidays, and helping to honor those days can also be very special to normalize the occasion. Anniversaries are especially great ways to remind their children that they are thought of and loved.
Help with language translation as well as policy and technical translation
If speaking, reading and writing fluently in multiple languages is your gift, you may be a metaphorical flashlight in the dark for someone who does not speak fluent English and now has to navigate complex insurance and public policies and processes that often is English-centered.
In addition, the language in which policies and laws are written is incredibly challenging for most lay people. If you are proficient in “translating” this language, you may be able to alleviate a great deal of overwhelm for your friend as you help them understand their insurance policies, file papers and documents, and apply for eligible benefits. The same can be said about online applications or processes that may be unfamiliar to those who do not regularly deal with electronic means of communication.
Show up for them, over and over and over again. It’s not too late
Your friend might say, “I do not want to be a burden.” Or maybe: “It’s okay – you’ve already done too much.” Your job is both to respect their wishes and to remind them, over and over and over again, that you are there for them. But please only say so if you are prepared to follow that promise – and that is exactly it: a promise to show up. “Appearing” can mean being there physically, emotionally and / or energetically.
You can save a lot of damage by living up to your promises or offering solutions when you can not.
Losing a home is potentially a multi-year effort to get back from. Even when someone is in a new permanent home situation and sees financial recovery, scars from emotional trauma can linger for adults and children.
Your friendship and kindness means more than ever in the coming days, weeks, months and years. They may not always have the capacity to reciprocate your kindness or patience, and you need to understand how trauma and persistent stress and anxiety can diminish a person’s courage.
Practice compassion and understanding long after the waste is cleared, and your kindness will be the reason from which your friend and community can rebuild and heal.
Finally, a word of gratitude to firefighters and emergency workers who work tirelessly to protect what we care about most in our lives: the safety and well-being of our families and friends, animals, homes and communities.
About the author
Stanley Ly (he, him, his) is a licensed professional advisor and director of the faculty and staff assistant program at the University of Colorado Boulder. In 2014, he provided psychological first aid to people affected by the floods in Boulder County. Since 2007, he has worked with survivors of sexual assault, young people with neurological disabilities, people experiencing psychiatric emergencies in hospitals, prisons and in the community.