October 12, 2008 — GALVESTON — 30 days post-Hurricane Ike
Here’s what’s weird: There are surfers in the Gulf, and the water is the bluest I’ve ever seen it. You can drive the Seawall and it almost looks like nothing ever happened. The moon rises over the ocean like a bad hotel painting every single night. There’s a plumeria blooming on my abandoned balcony. God has given us some of the most beautiful days in which to recover – maybe so we can remember why we’re here.
But there is an elephant on the table — under the tablecloth.
Our records washed away, many of us are still homeless, technology is scarce, applications for assistance are impossible to complete no matter who you are. We are all working 17-hour days trying to put our homes back together, tend to our clients and neighbors, reunite our families, find a way to do business. Galveston had a curfew until this week. The place is teeming with government, insurance, and construction crews. There are tent cities and mountainous landfills. Boats are still standing upright against trees and caddy-wampus in boathouses. Waves lap up underneath homes where staircases used to be. The historic district (downtown) is coated with a thick layer of dusty muck, and near the Strand, where I live, not one single street-level home or business remains.
It has been a month since the storm and about ten days since most of us came home. We are navigating the stages of grief en masse. It is not unusual to well up with a stranger in line at the grocery store or spontaneously hug someone you’ve never met. Sometimes you hold on to them for dear life. Everyone says “please” and “thank you.” They say “thank you” a lot. Nobody yells. Relief workers comment every day that they can’t keep up with Galvestonians. We’re out there helping ourselves – not waiting, doing. We know that waiting makes things worse – like mold and rot and disease and collapse. As you can imagine, the insurance companies are uniformly disastrous, and now we’re told that FEMA is tagging whole neighborhoods for demolition so that the Federal flood insurance we’ve all paid premiums on for years won’t have to meet its obligation – and this even after people have taken the initiative and made their repairs out of their own pockets.
And still, nobody yells. My guess is it’s because we’re all so grateful to be alive…and home.
We use the word “grateful” a lot.
It’s nothing you can plan for or imagine. And it doesn’t go away just because the media moves on to something else.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about disasters: Whatever you expect to happen will certainly not happen. Whatever you don’t think of – that’s what will certainly happen.
Here’s what we all must do to prepare for the aftermath of disasters: Learn the stages of grief. Some people say there are five, some say seven. Doesn’t matter – learn them. And respect them. If not for yourself, for others.
1. SHOCK & DENIAL You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
2. PAIN & GUILT
As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
3. ANGER & BARGAINING
Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion. You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair (“I will never do such ‘n such again if you make it like it used to be.”).
4. DEPRESSION, REFLECTION, LONELINESS
Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving. During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you used to do, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.
5. THE UPWARD TURN
As you start to adjust to the change, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your depression begins to lift slightly.
6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH
As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life.
7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE
During the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward. You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your loss without pain; sadness, yes, but the wrenching pain will be gone. You will once again anticipate some good times to come, and yes, even find joy again in the experience of living.
Allow me to add my own 8th stage:
We mustn’t forget. Already we are feeling neglected, and we have such a long way to go. The next time this happens to someone else, it is our duty to remember how quickly we were forgotten and how abandoned we felt. It will be our responsibility to be there – in spirit, mind, or body – to support whoever we can, whenever and wherever we can, and to refrain from judging the victims. Why are we granted this experience if not to learn what we otherwise could never know – and now to pay it forward?
Copyright © 2008 Alice Melott