It's unlikely you'll find someone better equipped than Neil Rosenthal to talk about how to cope after losing your home and possessions to fire. A psychologist and syndicated columnist who lives in Boulder, Rosenthal's home twice has burned to the ground.
The Four Mile Canyon fire claimed his home — along with 165 others — in 2010. And almost two decades before that disaster, his house in the same area burned to the ground during a house fire when he was out of town.
Rosenthal knows how devastating such a loss can be, and has offered to do a free healing workshop for people who have lost their homes in the recent — and still raging — High Park Fire.
He has plenty of advice to offer those who are dealing with loss, as well as to friends and family members of those trying to cope.
First, what you shouldn't say, particularly to a child: "We're going to replace everything you lost."
Such a comment doesn't take into account that the child can get another doll, toy or teddy bear, "but it doesn't have the same symbolic meaning," Rosenthal says. "Even younger children are aware it's not the original. Those are the mementos that define our identity, our memories and experience. They are way more important than you think."
The key thing to understand is that people need to talk about what has happened to them. "They're not looking for advice, which can be irrelevant and insulting," Rosenthal says. "They just have an insatiable need to talk about it." Over and over again. "They need someone who will listen to their story with compassion, to be there as a friend or ally."
As a trained listener, he has the patience for that. But in a family where all are feeling their losses, "this is extremely compounded by the fact that adults are going through major trauma of their own and they have less resources to devote to the kids."
Children at different ages and stages will miss different things, Rosenthal says. "A teenager might lose some memento from a relationship he was in what might not be worth any money, but is emotionally and symbolically very important.
"The younger the child, the easier it will be. A 2-year-old will have less attachment to stuff than an 8-year-old, who has a computer or music set up on their mp3 and their room decorated with artwork done in the last few years. That's irreplaceable and someone needs to help talk about that. To an untrained ear it will sound monotonous and as an adult, you'll be inclined to want to talk about something else, but that's discounting the real emotions they are are going through."
Here's some additional advice Rosenthal has to offer:
"Under-indulge in anything that anesthetizes your emotions — including food, alcohol, recreational drugs and even television."
Instead, you should be acknowledging your feelings and working through them, he says. "You can bury them, but they will stay right there and undercut everything else that is is joyous."
It is normal to run through a range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, fatigue, confusion, helplessness, guilt, shame, sadness, cynicism, and taking no joy in anything, the psychologist says.
Gradually, begin concentrating on what gives you hope, he suggests.
Start replacing the material things you lost. Build up your movie collection, get a new computer.
If you have the means, plan a vacation where you can go as a family to clear your heads. It will give you something to look forward to.
What about going back to the place you lost?
For some people, it's important to see it once. Others have to return over and over to make it real, Rosenthal says. When he returned to his Four Mile Canyon home after the 2010 fire, "It was a ridiculously surreal site. There was nothing there. Everything was reduced to ash, including all the trees. What was a serene mountain environment looked like a war zone."
Depending on the cause of the fire, there's a tendency to want to take revenge on nature or God for letting it happen, he says.
There are two more things parents can impart to their children and model, he says.
Try not to take out your emotions on other people. "Be in control of your anger, your victimhood and your helplessness," he said. "People who walk around with a chip on their shoulder are spreading the pain to other people."
Finally, it's important for adults to adopt an attitude that they'll ultimately prevail. "We can't let a setback defeat us or defeat our spirit. That's an awful way to go through life."
Suzanne S. Brown: 303-954-1697 or firstname.lastname@example.org