Sandra Lafferty

Writer ~ Educator ~ Mental Health Advocate


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Helping to Clear the Emotional Debris

Feelings1

Jennifer Mills-Knutsen outlines some well thought out and practical Do’s and Don’ts for helping after a Disaster on her blog, For the Someday Book. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read. Of particular interest to me was her reminder to listen – and to listen patiently without judgment.

Our culture is not good at listening. We like to finish sentences for each other and refocus the attention, whether intentionally or subconsciously, onto ourselves. The trauma of a disaster leaves people needing to talk about their experience but it’s not productive to be the listener who says “I know just how you feel. When thus-and-such happened to ME, yada yada yada. “ Listening is an activity of the ears not the mouth.

Being a good listener is important after major disasters like the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, but also during times of distress from illness, failed relationships and financial hardship. These less far-reaching, more personal disasters also leave people needing to tell their story and it’s a boon to their mental health to have a caring listener who accepts whatever emotions they are currently tracking on the carpet.

Feelings just are; they are neither good nor bad, they just are. As a listener, try to let emotions flow on by without redirection, evaluation or judgment. Pain and fear can sound angry and there may be something cathartic in verbally lashing out at a perceived roadblock even if that blame is misplaced. If you pass on the opportunity to correct someone who is blaming the wrong person or agency, you allow them freedom to vent without the burden of logic. The need is to tell the story until it falls into perspective and the healing begins.

Likewise, pain and fear are repetitious. Listen like you’ve never heard it before.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. — Margaret J. Wheatley


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Picking Up Pieces of Other People’s Lives

EF5 TornadoDrought-breaking rains kept us from managing the several acres of vegetation that can’t legitimately be called a ‘lawn’ around our home. This day brought the first window of opportunity. I’d been eager to lose myself in the loud engine noise. This is where I go when I want quiet time alone. I find peace in the roaring barrier between me and household demands. On the mower I have time to think and just be.

But this day was different. There was no peace.

This week I felt odd, almost disloyal. I found my self-talk questioning my right to enjoyably cruise the yard while so many people were faced with a devastating pile of rubble that used to be their home. How could I care about foot-high dandelions right now? I’ve experienced a lot of feelings while mowing the yard but never before guilt.

Our brittle blackjack oak trees are forever dropping branches in the wind that serve as hazards. I can either walk the yard first or plan to stop multiple times to hop off the mower and drag dead wood out of my way. This day I’d chosen the latter.

I started with an open stretch that was dry, hoping the morning sun would have time to dry out the eastern sloping areas. The third pass afforded my first need to shut down and hop off the mower in retrieval mode. A flat piece of wood was lodged in the tall grass. I picked it up and held my breath. It was a thin piece of siding painted a soothing grey-blue on one side with jagged edges and empty nail holes that told how violently it had been removed from its place on someone’s home.

Tornado debris.

I tucked the siding by my seat on the mower and carried it with me. Tiny tufts of wet insulation dotted the yard. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I brought the mower to a sudden stop when I caught a glimpse of a colorful picture. I hurried to pick it up, in case it was a photograph, a precious memory to its owner. A beautiful bird was printed on cardstock weight paper – a portion of an envelope shaped package with a woman’s name printed neatly on the flap. It was of no value and I had no idea what used to be inside it, but I couldn’t throw it away.

A twinkling silver reflection caught my attention and I picked up a tiny bow made of metallic ribbon. It was a premade bow designed to peel and stick on a small package. I wonder if the twister interrupted a celebration.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things when their world was ripped apart.

I kept an especially sharp eye on the ground in front of the mower, looking for odds and ends that had been torn from someone’s home and dropped on mine. Each scrap I retrieved felt important. It had a story to tell. I collected them with the blue siding.

Looking at the store receipt with handwritten directions on the back made me wonder if its owner was traveling along the highway to that address when the tornado tossed cars aside like Hot Wheels. A tattered fax listing job openings in Aerospace Propulsion was dated 1993 – someone had saved it for 20 years before it was swept away by a violent wind. Film production was the topic on a scrap from a book or magazine.

I look at the waterlogged battered pieces of other people’s lives and cry. Some lost loved ones, some lost homes, all lost priceless treasures and the security of the little things that were always there.

Am I feeling sorrow, grief, frustration, gratefulness, insecurity, or survivor’s guilt? On some level, all of the above.

To those who are laboring side by side with those whose lives were blown apart by the 2013 tornados, you have my deepest gratitude for being where I cannot be. To those who, for whatever reason, cannot donate time and labor, I entreat you to donate monetarily to help sustain those who must carry on and rebuild in the face of unspeakable loss.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires, tsunamis, tornados. Adversity draws humanity together; it brings out the helpers. It’s what we do.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Fred Rogers