Helping in the face of disaster

Obviously the earthquake in Haiti is strongly on our collective world’s mind and as I come up against the limits of what I can personally do (i.e. sending money and some good thoughts) I found the stories and images from Haiti triggering memories of the past for me personally.

Back in 1994, when I was a psychology intern, I was in the midst of a training year at a university that happened to be at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake.  This was my first experience of a significant temblor and I was in my bed, ten miles from the center of it and it absolutely terrified me, busting every wedding gift as my wife and I clung to each other, our first child still in her womb between us.

When I got to work, the building that had formerly housed the counseling center was leaning precariously to the side and slabs of marble lay shattered around the campus—places we might well have been strolling had it hit at 4pm rather than 4am.  A ring of apartment buildings surrounded the campus, many of them damaged beyond repair and several pancaked into oblivion.

A client I’ll never forget had literally crawled out of one of those concrete pancakes and within a day staggered into the makeshift/temporary counseling center where they were inappropriately assigned to me.  I say “inappropriately” because in the days before the earthquake this person’s level of disturbance would have been screened and deemed too difficult for an intern.

In the just-do-what-you-can environment of the earthquake, I found myself in a half-condemned building with literal yellow police-tape across the living room.  On the safe side of the tape, amidst constant aftershocks, this person recounted the horrors of the collapsing building, graphic and gory details of neighbors’ bodies and the intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, tears, sleep disturbance and feelings of worthlessness they now struggled with in the wake of their survival.

It turned out that the earthquake was but a crowning cherry on a sundae of uncanny disasters, wounds and struggles that had preceded it.  This client also resented me for being green and unlikely to be able to help—one more emblem of how they always got the short straw.

For weeks I listened, horrified and out of my depth, and then half the time had to process what I had heard with my own therapist, working against my vicarious traumatization.  Over time, however, January became May and this person showed marked improvement.  We both learned from the other, and were left changed by our shared experience.

I mention this tale for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it was about learning that we can help and make a difference, sometimes even when we think that we can’t—and that a willingness to bear witness can be a huge thing for someone who has been hurt.  This relates to big disasters, but also to the small disasters our children and other loved ones face in the course of life.

Secondly, although the number of dead in Northridge may be nothing compared with Haiti, if you were one of the few who crawled through rubble in southern California to survive, someone who had horror imprinted into your eyes, then your world came down around you.  The metrics of Haiti are really about poverty, but not just about generous giving in the wake of disaster, but perhaps about collective concern about the next vulnerable region before it becomes a headline.

Whether we are facilitating mental health, or combating hunger and poverty, sometimes the best work is the quiet work that garners no headline (much like suicide prevention).  Good parenting is also like that—unsung and overlooked, tiring and even sometimes vicariously traumatizing (I think of parents who’ve endured their children’s serious illnesses, even if successful, it leaves a person inexorably changed).

In the midst of the hard work of helping the emotionally wounded while feeling a bit wobbly one’s self, a helicopter descended one afternoon and then-Vice-President Al Gore stood around in an open parking lot, blue shirt sleeves rolled up, and thanked and encouraged us.  It’s not everyday you feel someone like Al Gore coming down to your level and validating you and your reality, the feeling that this was a significant disaster.  It meant a lot to me and stayed with me… and, over time, as I watched Gore become more and more of the sort of leader I most admire (not one focused on power, but on effective service) and his example continues to nourish and inspire us to be our best Selves.

I think we’ve all been stepping up and giving what we can on behalf of Haiti, and I wanted to invite us to imagine that the massive number of those hurt, and also psychologically traumatized, all distill down to countless individual stories—unique situations, connections and cosmic questions… and that every single one is really one of our collective children.

So, perhaps we might dedicate today to gratitude for our own good fortune, as well as kindred compassion for those who suffer, born of whatever ways in which we may suffer—aiming to be safe, healthy and happy in our own selves, families and communities… and then setting the intention to do what we can to ripple our love out into the wider world, striving to see it as our shared world—as a mirror of the inter-connected and collective Self.

Namaste, Bruce



4 Responses to “Helping in the face of disaster”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    What a lovely reminder, Bruce, of the power of bearing witness and showing compassion. For years, I would donate to a number of charities, naively thinking that my modest check could help solve every problem that came to mind. Now, I give more to a handful of causes – led and staffed by good and ethical men and women – because I realize that any piece of service we do – whether financial or personal – does help lift the burden of suffering. One action cannot alleviate all global pain, but every act of pain relief, as it were, is meaningful.

  2. Khim Says:

    Bruce, this post touched me. I, like you, can’t help but draw on memories of the most similar experience I can personally compare this disaster to. Yes, Haiti and it’s citizens are struggling with far worse circumstances and in truth, it will be years before they “dig” out of this mess. But I can so relate to the fear. I will never forget that night…..Nate was not yet in the world and Christian was just 3 weeks old. The only night between his birth and about 3 years of age when he slept through the night. That brought on a whole other sense of fear….until I found the flashlight and saw that he was just sleeping. Fear is fear, no matter your circumstance. Why it takes a disaster of this proportion to rally human kindness, I don’t know. But my thoughts and prayers are with all those who struggle, with what ever their circumstances are tonight. My wish…peace for all God’s creatures, great and small.

  3. Beth K Says:

    A friend of mine and her family are in pain. Their 24-year old daughter died last week in an apparent suicide. She was about to turn in her Master’s thesis, and I don’t think there were any obvious signs that she was depressed or troubled. She was the oldest of four daughters, the youngest of whom is in elementary school.
    Please send healing thoughts to this family.

  4. privilegeofparenting Says:

    It has been said that while murder kills one person, suicide kills everyone. This is indeed tragic. In addition to healing thoughts for a shattered family, it reinforces the notion that whether or not this case turns out to be suicide, suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people (after accidents and murder) and so we must be more aware of subtle signs.

    More important today, for your friend’s family, is the love of the group and so that is what I hope any readers crossing these words will send into the ether.

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