The tragic events of the 7th February 2009 have left most of us in Victoria, if not all of Australia, reeling. The “Black Saturday” fires have surpassed all that have gone before in their ferocity, magnitude and human devastation. While those directly affected by the fires are still in shock and dealing with the immediate issues of survival, the rest of us are also experiencing a wide range of emotions in response to this event.
There is the thinnest of degrees of separation between most Melbournians and the places or people in the path of these fires. But even when we don’t know anyone directly involved there has been a huge ripple of grief through our community.
While we are trying to make some kind of intellectual sense of the horror weekend, our emotions may have taken on a life of their own. Some common reactions have been a sense of guilt (why am I feeling like this when I have lost nothing?), embarrassment, discomfort and great sadness or depression.
“Survivor guilt” is a term often applied to people who have lived through traumatic events such as these bushfires, coming through it relatively unscathed while those around them have lost loved ones or a home.
News stories of the past week keep often depict this. Such as a person returning to a home left standing who says they should feel happy about it but can’t. Or another that has lost their house but talks in code of “those worse off” or “deserve help more than me”. But even out of the bushfire zone, we too can have a sense of survivor guilt by feeling embarrassed, helpless and inadequate in response to this.
There is no magic remedy for “survivor guilt” but recognising and naming it, is a good place to start. Trying to talk to others about what you are feeling is helpful. There has been some great outpouring on blogs, where readers keep commenting they feel the same way and find comfort in knowing they are not the only one to respond like this. The main thing to remember is that this is a common response to disasters and has its own emotional logic. There is no right or wrong way to react to something like this.
This short article in the Sydney Morning Herald by the director of Lifeline is full of information.
Grief, Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Another common reaction to the fires has been grief, in it’s many stages. A popular model explaining most people’s reaction to grief is the one attributed to Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Her theory of the five stages of grief or loss, can help us be aware of what we or others may be experiencing. While the bush fires or death are obvious examples, the stages also relate to relationships ending, being faced with a major illness (your own or someone close to you), loosing a job and many other situations.
1. Denial. “I’m fine”. Often characterized by shock and disbelief at what has happened, we tend to claim we are all right and coping fine.
2. Anger. “It’s not fair”. We need to find someone to blame. Sometimes it is our self but it can be the ‘victim’, the authorities or someone or thing totally unrelated to the incident.
3. Bargaining. “I’ll do anything…” While some strike a deal with their god, others play out scenarios in their heads. A child whose parents are breaking up might think if they did their homework or ate their vegetables every night then it wouldn’t happen.
4. Depression. “There’s no point to life”. When life feels incredibly bleak with no glimmer of hope and we feel like it will never improve.
5. Acceptance. “I can go on”. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean life is the same as before but it is about finding a new normal.
We can’t force our way through the stages or say “well, I got angry yesterday so I can tick that off”. Often people come and go, backwards and forwards through the stages but generally depression is to some degree inevitable, before we make sense of the experience and gain a degree of acceptance.
If you have a history of depression or have suffered loss or trauma previously in your life, just watching the recent events unfold on television or social media may trigger these feelings of grief, sadness, hopelessness and depression.
Often when we have experienced a major loss, we have an increased empathy for the suffering of others. Even if you don’t know anyone in the path of the fires you may become overwhelmed with sadness and find yourself breaking down in tears. However if your usual self-care fails to help and these feelings persist. it is important to see a psychologist, trained counsellor or similar professional to help you deal with the underlying issues.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex anxiety based reaction to a stressful event. It is often characterised by reliving the situation over and over in your head, feeling anxious, hypervigilance, insomnia, phobias and avoidance of similar stimuli. While soldiers, survivors of torture and those who have been in previous fires are obvious candidates, so too is a person who has experienced a car crash or invasive medical treatment.
While PTSD is an all too common outcome for many who have been at the front line of this fire, those who are not been directly affected by it but have a history of PTSD may be experiencing a triggering of their anxiety and stress, no matter how long ago their initial exposure was. PTSD needs specialised help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Natural Therapies for trauma
While talking to friends and seeking psychological help is the first step to recovery, the following remedies may also help this process.
- Herbs for the nervous system – good quality, organic teas such as chamomile, skullcap, lavender and passionflower. One heaped teaspoon per cup, brewed in a teapot for at least five minutes. Drink four-five cups a day.
- St Johns Wort tablets or tincture, if you are not on prescribed medications (including the pill), talk to a naturopath or herbalist about the most appropriate form and dose for you.
- Kava root tablets (best prescribed by an experienced herbalist with good product knowledge for quality and safety) are excellent for anxiety and trauma.
Try to stop watching television and have a descent break from the media. Go for walks, get a massage, talk to friends, play soothing music, have a hug, play with your pets. Try to stick to some kind of routine, including regular meals and a set time to go to bed.
While sleep is a great healer and much needed when living through stressful times, it’s not unusual to experience insomnia.
This article from the archives, about natural ways to aid better sleep has lots of specific tips and remedies.
Problems sleeping may be the tip of the iceberg that you notice at this time, downplaying or ignoring other symptoms. This is a great prompt to see a naturopath or herbalist, if symptoms continue.
How to help someone who is grieving
When someone you love has lost a home, family members, a treasured pet in the bushfires, or experienced some other form of loss – what can you do to help them? Most of us feel overwhelmed and inadequate when facing someone else’s grief. The following may be useful:
- If they are a close friend, then contact them, let them know you love them and are thinking of them. Ask if they want a hug or more practical help. If you leave a message don’t demand to hear back from them, in fact it can be a relief when someone says “please don’t feel you have to call me back”. While talking to people can be healing, at other times it can be overwhelming. Send supportive texts, a few days later letting you know you are there for them when they are ready for it.
- When we’re overwhelmed, it’s difficult to know what we need. With good intentions we often ask if there’s anything we can do but well thought out actions can sometimes be more useful. Send a message saying, you’re dropping a meal over to where they’re staying and ask if they’re not up to having a visitor where you’ll leave the dish. Make care packages. Print photos that are relevant for them from your collection.
- Try to leave your own agenda behind, whether it is that you feel the need to be useful or have past grief of your own that is overflowing – your friend doesn’t need that burden. Be patient
- Don’t push them to talk but don’t pretend nothing has happened.
- They will need different things at different times. Don’t expect them to be consistent. One day they might want distraction, another time to cry or be angry. Everyone’s journey of grief follows their unique pattern.
Most of all, don’t forget them. When the buzz dies down about the fires, or the funeral is long over – people can often feel abandoned or isolated. Further down the track bring the flowers, food, wine and other comforts that you know they like. Often the full impact of loss takes weeks or months to fully hit. This event will take years to heal. It’s never too late to be there for them.
Lifeline – 24 hour telephone counselling service 13 11 14.
Book an extended consultation andequest a mental health plan through your GP. They can arrange a medicare rebate to makepsychological care affordable.
Listen to the podcast, available now online. (2019 update – this is still available to listen to!)