From Oregon to Florida, and Texas to India, people face terrible disasters.
There is trauma born of unpredictable and uncontrollable loss, and unwanted dependency on others for homes or meals after floods or tornadoes or fires devastate their neighborhoods. These events force capable people to rely on others, living out of hospitals or shelters.
And more people, including friends, families and people you don’t know, will suffer medical tragedies and unexpected losses.
There are similarities between these experiences and those of a foster kid moving into her 5th home in as many months. There are similarities between the needs of her foster parent, and those of the natural disaster victims who received initial support and are forgotten, alone, and still in a shelter.
While we were still thinking about Harvey and cleaning up homes, another round of disasters struck all around the world. Today Mexico’s most powerful earthquake in a century was devastating. And it will keep happening, although in between there will be periods of silence.
At the end of this article you can download some resources including visuals for caregivers of people with special needs facing disasters. But first, thoughts about the strange, sustained, nonlinear nature of recovery after tragedy or life after disruption.
A few months ago I attended a series of permanency roundtables. (Permanency… this is something those in flood zones or fire-ripe mountains – or foster homes – might never have.)
These roundtables were events to listen to hundreds of family members attempting permanent adoptions with children who had tragic stories of abuse, neglect, and repeated failed placements.
At these meetings, I heard a repeated chorus:
“We need long-lasting, repeated support.”
“We are grateful for what we’ve been given and still we work hard every day and night with no rest.”
“Our adoption workers mean well and yet are often quick to remove the supports that were so helpful for the 6 weeks of “honeymoon” after the paperwork was finalized.”
“It’s been months (or years) and the struggles are still there.”
“The kids seem to be really impacted by what they went through, and it’s showing up in difficult educational challenges which are hard to address.”
“The behavior challenges are still just as dire.”
“The wounds to our adult family members who tried to restrain the child in the middle of a furious display of emotion and behavior (whether these “come out of the blue” or after he spotted his biological aunt in Wal-Mart) are still healing and there are more coming.”
“The police are getting tired of the calls and the hospital we reached out to for help has started to blame us.”
“We look more normal now. But we actually have less support than ever before- and we still need help.”
Today, as we watch another storm about to hit, I think of a story I read last week, in which former flood victims shared their thoughts on how to help others.
When we want to help someone who will need help long-term, it suggested, we embrace the regular pace of helping a little at a time.
We say what we are doing and ask if there’s anything else. We mention when we’ll be back and we put it on our calendars, or set a reminder on our phone. We come back soon.
This approach reminds us a little of the preventative schedule… of using repeated orienting statements and offers of help and kindness… on a regular schedule, even when someone looks like they don’t need it. We have written about how it can be helpful for adult and child survivors of sexual abuse and dementia, Alzheimers, and those in mental health facilities. It’s helpful in schools. But it’s also important, useful, and do-able—to provide small, regular doses of whatever is helpful, to victims of disasters, and to keep doing this for a while after the visible evidence goes away.
Maybe the hard part is not what to give. Sure, we can give money. And at first, cash is more helpful than supplies because transportation is expensive and slow. But people rebuilding their lives need someone to show up after the show is over.
It might be as simple as dropping off fast food, working a shift piling up ruined household items, bringing hot coffee, or washing clothes and bringing them back clean. The hard part is to keep doing it regularly as long as it is needed.
What if I ask and they don’t tell me how to help?
If you leave near someone affected, but you were not, maybe you are thinking of asking them if they need something.
When someone has been through something very hard, they don’t respond well to questions.
“What do you need?” may produce a blank stare (from new moms with colicky babies after long hospital stays, or foster children or parents who clearly need support but can’t request it, to disaster victims who could really benefit from someone dropping by.
So should we shrug when we get that blank stare? After all, we asked and they said no, right?
Again, sometimes the most supportive thing to do is say how you’re addressing a need and when you’ll be back. “Hello. I’m here with food and next week I’ll be back with diapers. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
After the storm is gone but evidence is still there underneath brave faces, people won’t need a flood of support. Instead, try contributing in a steady stream… or even a slow trickle.
Resources and links
Boardmaker downloads for hurricanes and emergencies, including core words
Social stories about hurricanes and tragedies
Emergency preparedness for special needs, and Florida resources:
Oregon fire victims
Examples of special needs groups helping each other after Harvey