The origin of this “tsunami” came innocently enough in early October when I was invited to head up a relief/assessment team to Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. While spending the week with our wonderful brothers and sisters in this U.S. territory, my heart was broken and grew several sizes in compassion. I debriefed with others on my experience knowing would take some time to process.
Within three weeks after I returned, news came of a wildfire in Ventura, a city 25 miles down the coast. A week later the unthinkable happened as the fire, fueled by Santa Ana winds advanced up the coast, over the mountains and foothills less than two miles away from my own home. For almost three days from my condo, under voluntary evacuation orders, I could see the fire taunting our seaside town with its menacing flames. A fire in my fireplace no longer sounded appealing over the Christmas season.
Just three and a half weeks later, an even worse fate fell upon the adjacent community of Montecito as intense rain storm pounded the coast in the early morning hours sending a massive flow of mud, trees, and boulders down the slopes, destroying over 100 homes, killing 21 people with two still missing.
Tack on a brief tsunami warning stemming from a large earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska and an earthquake “warning” – which thankfully never materialized – and the bucket of traumatic natural disasters was full.
Experiencing this “boxed set” of incidents has raised a question for me in how I care for others. It is a profound reminder that just because we have experienced one trauma does not mean we are exempt from the impact of others. Throughout the Thomas fire and Montecito mudslides, there were hundreds if not thousands who could have been processing recent past traumas or experiencing present traumas in family situations, friends, work, school and more. In the days following, the challenge before them was to sort out thoughts and feelings on multiple levels of response to different traumas.
Every trauma carries its challenges to recovery. Specific traumas become triggers to emotions tied in with past experiences forming a complicated and tangled “wad of thread” one would love to unravel but has no idea where to start.
Today I sat with two other youth leaders who serve parishes in the middle of Montecito and have been walking with families and kids directly impacted by the huge mud and debris flow. As we sipped on our coffees, it became quickly apparent that trying to describe how we each felt was not easy. As educated and experienced pastors none of us could find the words to unravel this web. After a few pauses, we gave ourselves the grace to live in a world of feeling “disoriented.”
In a moment like this, it would have been easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of all that has been experienced and give in to the fear of not trying to care for ourselves or others. Yet, it was love and listening that provided the best start to our healing and reinforced our own best strategy with others who have been carried by a wave of trauma to the place they had not imagined. With a listening ear and a compassionate heart, we provide the calming, community and connection we need to help pick ourselves up and tackle this “web” together.
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