Like many others, I was glued to news and weather sources during the recent cycle of catastrophic storms and flooding ravaging the Gulf Coast in recent weeks, frequently checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds for news of friends and family in the storms’ paths.
One phrase kept jumping out at me: "they lost everything" -- usually meaning they lost their homes, cars, and possibly their employment. They got out with "just the clothes on their backs," the narrative goes. This was often followed, by the person in question, with the observation that it was “Just stuff. Stuff can be replaced. At least my family and I survived, and that’s what’s really important. We’re blessed and grateful.”
Believe me, sometimes I wish I didn’t have as much ‘stuff,’ and I admire the perspective and gratitude people show in these very difficult moments – but… even though it’s just ‘stuff’ the point is, it was your stuff. You spent a lot of time and money acquiring it, and not all of it can be replaced.
Family photos. Letters from friends and loved ones. Your grandmother’s china. Artwork – from your children’s drawings to original oil paintings. High school yearbooks. Losing personal possessions like these must be hard, even as you’re counting your blessings that you and your family are safe.
Wanting to understand this better, I decided to check with the experts. I spoke with Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a professor of psychiatry at University of California, Davis.
He had a word for the ‘just stuff’ narrative. He called it "denial" – but quickly added it’s not a bad thing.
“For some, it’s better to call it ‘stuff’ and keep carrying on,” Yellowlees said in a telephone interview. “Denial is healthy as long as you’re not completely ignoring the reality of what you have to do.”
But the reality is, the grieving process for losing your home and cherished possessions is pretty much the same as for the loss of a loved one.
Although the grief process has predictable stages, typically taking about a year, people deal with loss in different ways.
In times past, it was more common for therapists to insist that everyone would benefit from talking about their feelings following an upheaval, but that mindset has changed, Yellowlees said.
Some people need to process their emotions by talking, and for them, counseling can be helpful. However, some stoics just want to move on with their lives, do what needs doing and skip the whole Kumbaya hand-holding stuff.
One thing people can do to help each other is to respect their chosen coping method – don’t try to force someone to talk if they don’t want to talk. On the other hand, be a sympathetic ear for those who need to talk.
The thing people need the most after a disaster is adequate information on which to base the decisions they need to make. Immediate needs like food, water, power, shelter and other basic necessities take priority over psychological distress.
“Being safe is way more important than feeling good about yourself,” he said.
However, once the immediate danger has passed, feelings tend to arise.
When their lives have been turned upside down by disaster or anything else, it might take some time to put the pieces back together. People are resilient – some more than others – and it is common for people to join with others to rebuild and recover from their losses.
Being able to return to their homes and resume their lives can help people regain their mental equilibrium.
However, for those who can’t, or feel stuck in loss and sadness long after the storm has passed, consulting a doctor or therapist could be helpful. Likewise, if people see a friend or relative struggling, they should reach out.
Statistically, suicide increases following a disaster, Yellowlees said. If people were stressed or troubled before a disaster, it’s likely only going to get worse.
The process of recovering from a disaster can be slow and frustrating – "two steps forward, one step back," Yellowlees said.
Even people who came through the storms unscathed can fall prey to survivor guilt.
There is no one way for people to process the sadness and fears that can linger long after the storm waters have receded, but Yellowlees cautioned against self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
It might seem fun in the short term, but this method typically only delays the need to cope with feelings, he said.
“Most of these drugs are depressants,” he said, adding that a side effect of chronic alcohol abuse is depression.
A previous version of this story incorrectly affiliated Dr. Yellowlees with California State University, Sacramento