Written by Stanley Ly, MA, LPC, FSAP Director
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll learn intimately of our friends and colleagues who were directly impacted by the Marshall and Middle Fork Fires, including those who lost their homes entirely. In the ugly wake of this devastation, we as a community must do everything in our power to reassure those who must now rebuild a life after disaster that they are not alone, and that they will not be forgotten. We can do this by showing up for our friends and colleagues.
If you find yourself in a position to reach out and offer support, below are nine ways to offer help. I’ve tried to offer a diverse array of tips to support that falls within varying resources, means, ability, and skill set.
Above all, rather than letting the thought slide, I hope that your compassionate longing to help is acted upon. The kindness from friends, colleagues, and strangers is the healing that we need right now.
Be a safe space for feelings
Listen for understanding. Manage your own discomfort to avoid implicitly asking your friend to have to manage your discomfort as well as their own feelings. Resist the temptation to “offer the bright side,” which can often feel invalidating or minimizing.
Listening for understanding means setting aside your own agenda so that you may be fully present in creating emotional safety for your friend.
Here are some suggestions for what to say if you’re struggling to find the right words:
“What is on your heart and mind today?”
“Thank you for sharing truthfully how you’re feeling. I’m here for you.”
“What feels overwhelming today? I care about you and want to help how I can.”
It’s commonly known that survivors of disasters may observe an initial flood of support followed by a very sudden drop-off after the news cycle moves on.
To help assuage your concerning thoughts, “Is it too late for me to just now say something? What if I bring up a bad memory?” My advice is this: if compassion is driving your longing to reach out, do not withhold that gift. Reach out, show up, and be prepared to listen with understanding and respect their “Not right now, thank you” if you hear it. Manage your discomfort and have gratitude for the fact that your friend trusts you enough that you can handle their “No.” Thank them and ask if they would like another outreach sometime later.
Help with debris clearing
If you are invited and able, and local authorities clear access for your friend to sift through ashes, you can be an anchor for them as they potentially go through waves of intense emotions.
One’s home is precious and filled with sacred memories and experiences. Treat the grounds of their home with respect and care. Allow them to take the lead in directing you and providing guidelines for where and what you should be going through.
Be as prepared to work in quiet if necessary as much as you are prepared to stop everything to provide emotional support. Remember what it means to be invited to this space.
Please always seek and follow guidelines outlined by local emergency services before engaging with debris clearing—there may be harmful toxins you need to protect against.
Donate something that they love and need
Donations are wonderful, but at a time when life has gone back to basics and world is spinning too quickly, your friend does not need another box to sort through or drop off at a donation site themselves because it does not serve their needs.
It is one thing to receive a precious warm winter jacket that makes someone feel cozy and cared for because their favorite jacket was lost, and it’s another to receive boxes of used and seemingly random items that they have neither time nor space to manage.
You can probably assume somethings are required: money and meals. But for everything else, how can you know what they need most? Ask.
Be very intentional and conscientious if you are donating used items. If offering to purchase brand new items, do your best to fulfill for them exactly what is desired, or offer gift cards if you’re uncertain.
Offer childcare and dependent-care support
Parents and those who have dependent-care responsibilities, say for an aging parent or a sibling with disabilities, could benefit tremendously from a few hours of uninterrupted and guilt-free time.
Children may be experiencing shock, despair, and confusion, and may need affection and comfort. You can help your friend’s children feel loved by taking them out for a meal and treat, play a game with them, or invite them over for arts and crafts, movie night, or a playdate or sleepover with your family. This has the extra added benefit of allowing parents to work without having their attention split between their kids and navigating other responsibilities.
For friends who have adult-aged dependents living with them, you may be able to provide support in several ways. For instance, you can take them to their medical appointments or therapies, fix a meal for them to enjoy, or just spend time providing care.
Your friend may contend that it’s too much additional work to instruct you on the intricacies for how to care for their family member for just a one-off event. If you cannot commit to weekly or monthly caregiving, perhaps you can offer to help organize a small group of people willing to provide support. You can help by typing up your friend’s care guidelines, thus preventing them from having to reteach each next caregiver.
Offer to help with practical needs, like moving and cleaning
Your friend may have to relocate multiple times before landing in a semi-permanent living arrangement, which means multiple times they’re having to pack and unpack. Lend your vehicle to help with the moving process. Trade the weights you lift weekly at the gym for boxes and supplies for a day or two.
You can help make their living situation more welcoming by coming in with cleaning supplies and polishing up their temporary abode. A place can feel much more amenable when it feels clean. Or if you’ve got skills troubleshooting home appliances, you can make a world’s difference by repairing a downed dishwasher for family with children, for instance.
Help with administrative duties
The less enticing but often overwhelming other side of disaster and tragedy is paperwork and administration. Those who lost their homes in a fire will need to engage with insurance companies and their policies, hire contractors, deal with banks and mortgage companies, speak with lawyers, coordinate with utility companies, and replace government-issued documents at least.
As part of the process of recouping losses, your friend will likely need to complete a personal property inventory, which can be a daunting and emotionally shattering task.
Help your friend by helping them to create structure to the inventory process. This will help prevent overwhelm. You can do this by imposing breaks or meals to break up the stress, or by doing some prior research into their insurance company so it’s known what information is necessary to file a claim. Offer to do portions of the paperwork or inventory yourself. Whatever you can do to alleviate some of the burden could be a massive lift of stress off their shoulders.
Ask how you can help even if you are not local
Your friend’s neighbors or local friends may themselves be comprised if they were affected as well. Distant support can become that much more valuable as a result. If you find yourself in this position, ask directly and specifically for a list of ways you can help. You may also have your own ideas, like organizing meal or gift card donations. Recruit your own local community to help when appropriate as well.
Remembering important anniversaries throughout the years, like birthdays and holidays, and contributing in ways to honor those days can also be very special for normalizing the occasion. Anniversaries are particularly great ways to remind their children that they are thought of and loved.
Help with language translation, as well as policy and tech translation
If speaking, reading, and writing fluently in multiple languages is your gift, you may be able to be a metaphoric flashlight in the darkness to someone who is not fluent in English and needs now to navigate complex insurance and government policies and processes that are often English-centric.
Additionally, the language that policies and laws are written is incredibly challenging to most laypeople. If you are skilled in “translating” this language, you may be able to alleviate a great overwhelm for your friend as you help them to understand their insurance policies, file paperwork and documents, and apply for eligible benefits. The same can be said for online applications or processes that might be unfamiliar for those who don’t engage with electronic means of communication regularly.
Show up for them, again and again and again. It’s not too late
Your friend may say, “I don’t want to be a burden.” Or maybe, “It’s okay—you’ve done too much already.” Your job is to both respect their wishes and to remind them, again and again and again, that you are there for them. But please only say so if you are prepared to act upon that promise—and it is just that: a promise to show up. “Showing up” can mean being there physically, emotionally, and/or energetically.
You can save a lot of hurt by living up to your promises or offering solutions when you cannot.
Losing a home is potentially a multiple-year long endeavor to recoup from. Even when someone is in a new permanent home situation and are seeing financial recuperation, scars from emotional trauma may linger for adults and children.
Your friendship and kindness mean more than ever in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. They may not always have the capacity to reciprocate your kindness or patience, and you must understand how trauma and sustained stress and anxiety can whittle down a person’s fortitude.
Practice compassion and understanding long after the debris is cleared, and your kindness will be the grounds from which your friend and the community can rebuild and heal.
Lastly, a word of gratitude to firefighters and emergency first responders who work tirelessly to protect what we hold most dear in our lives: the safety and well-being of our families and friends, animals, homes, and community.
About the Author
Stanley Ly (he, him, his) is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at University of Colorado Boulder. In 2014, he provided psychological first aid to individuals affected by the floods in Boulder County. Since 2007, he has worked with sexual assault survivors, youth with neurological disabilities, individuals experiencing psychiatric emergencies in hospitals, jails, and the community.