Healing in a time of Tragedy

Child staring anxiously out a window

The wildfires, mudslides, and flooding that Santa Barbara County residents have experienced recently have been traumatic and stressful for many. Although Lompoc is removed from the scene by some distance, we all have friends, co-workers and/or family members who have been directly affected.

Each of us reacts differently, but it’s important to note that some of the more common signs of trauma are anxiety and fear. When we’re suffering from stress and anxiety, common sense often goes out the window. We may find ourselves having a hard time falling or staying asleep. Distressing dreams are common and overwhelming feelings of helplessness and loss of control are common.

All of these stressors interfere with our normal patterns of thinking and functioning so it’s important for folks to understand that this is normal and these are expected reactions to very abnormal events.

The enormity of the deaths and destruction in Montecito may be particularly difficult for children.

Children often hear bits and pieces of news and are concerned that the fires “will get them — or burn their houses.” It can be helpful to get a map of the county and show them in detail where they live, where the fire or flood is located and help them understand the distances between the two areas.

Though our community was spared this type of damage from the recent Rucker Fire, the flames and smoke were frightening for many children. The ever-present smoke from the massive Thomas Fire surely brought those fears to the surface for some children.

The remnants of the Rucker Fire remain in areas of our community, from scarred landscapes to the dye of orange fire retardant. Every time a child passes by those scenes, it reminds them of the fire and how they felt. It doesn’t go away. It can be terrifying.

It may be helpful for some children if they can learn about family evacuation plans. Talk to them about where you would go, who would be there and how you would keep safe. Talk to them about what would happen if they’re at school and are separated from you. Having an understanding of some of the unknowns may be reassuring to children.

It’s also important to remember the prevalence of images on television and social media and understand that children may have a harder time understanding what they’re seeing.

I remember cautioning parents after 9/11 about the images of those two planes striking the World Trade Center towers. Those videos were shown endlessly for days.

Every time a child saw that they thought it was something new. It’s very concreted in the here and now for them. I caution parents not to let children see the images over and over again. The same is true with the mudslides. They hear people say ‘No one could outrun that.’ They feel there is no way to protect themselves. Children are hearing this and worried about it. 

When I was a child growing up in Humboldt County, I remember enjoying rainstorms. My mom would cook chili and I could hear the rain. We now have a whole generation of Santa Barbara children who are going to be terrified of rain. Those visions are not comforting or nurturing to them. It’s going to be terrifying for them.

There will certainly be many first responders that will need help in the coming weeks, months and years. It’s important for them to tell their story: what they saw; what they heard; what they notice; what they remembered.

There are other ways to help from a counseling perspective. For instance, in the case of a firefighter who responded and found a baby covered in mud and deceased, we use a type of psychotherapy known as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This concept helps people process distressing memories or experiences and is successful in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In this treatment, the patient concentrates on back-and-forth movements or hand tapping while thinking of the disturbing memory and redirecting the memories to more pleasant ones.

For first responders, we can use that technique to tap into the depth of pain, fear, the trauma that these images have created in our brain. It’s import to talk, to cry, to let emotions out. We try to be tough. It’s painful. 

Some agencies have developed group discussions with people needing to process such experiences. In these discussions, they get a feeling that they’re not the only ones experiencing it. Churches can help with this too.

We have to remember that spouses and families are traumatized also. A lot of firefighters around the country were at the Thomas Fire during the holidays and didn’t get to go home to their own families. And when they get home, they don’t talk about it. They just do it. Think about the ripple effect of this kind of experience.

We realize now how very important it is to deal with stress as it surfaces. That idea of PTSD — we connected it with war. It was called shellshock. Now, we understand this goes way deeper than that. We come across this in many aspects of our lives, such as witnessing car accidents. There are many sources for PTSD.

Certainly, the population in Santa Barbara and Montecito are all suffering from that. 

It is going to take time to heal and recover. We have to be kind to ourselves. We need to sleep and eat a good diet. We’re very fragile and raw when we go through a stressor like this. 

About the Author

Author: Ann S. Bockius, MFT, Marriage/Family Therapist

Ann S. Bockius was licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist in 1990. She works primarily with families, parents and children ages 2 to 18. She previously worked for eight years as a preschool teacher and director and for seven years as a Parent Co-Op Preschool director.