How to deal with stuff after a natural disaster

The disaster and consequences of Harvey are still unfolding for many families. 

Harvey is now on record as the most extreme rain event in U.S. History.

If you are not local to this disaster, watching the shocking rescue images on the news can easily render one helpless. Not unlike what much of the country felt watching the images of September 11, 2001 as they happened here in NYC, DC and PA.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the devastating effects of having everything you own destroyed.

When it comes to getting and staying organized, telling the difference between urgent and important is essential. In a crisis, the distinction between urgent and important disappears.

We get to see how useful some material things are, while witnessing that some of the things that heal us the quickest aren’t things at all.

In moments like this, we are reminded that everyone seeks safety, warmth, clean food and water and a dry place to rest. And we get to see again how fragile and temporary everything beyond that is.

While I am an optimist, I would never insult anyone by suggesting they simply “turn that frown upside down” or “look for the silver lining” as they sort through a lifetime’s worth of belongings in search of something salvageable. In those moments, hope may be the last thing someone can find.

For others, the inevitable grief and loss may not be accessible yet, as they struggle to find warm, dry shelter while still in shock.

Many of us have attachments to stuff and making light of those attachments or minimizing them or worse, shaming someone for having them, seems pointless and even heartless when they’re faced with this degree of disruption.

So let’s agree to not do that.

For anyone dealing with the loss of shelter, there will be plenty of time to address the additional loss of sentimental objects, heirlooms and other touchstones of memory when basic needs have been taken care of.

When that time comes, it will be important to consider what did survive the storm—namely oneself.

Most of us know someone who has survived a fire, flood or other natural disaster, but their things did not.

Many of these people talk about the tremendous sense of freedom they experienced on the other side of their initial grief and loss.

While they could not imagine wiping the slate clean themselves, having survived the wiping, they now feel liberated and unburdened by all of the stuff that represented their pasts.

This isn’t true for everyone but it is true for some.

And that is where something valuable can be learned from these experiences that is useful for us all.

Story is a powerful agent in each of our lives.

Story is how we learn about our families, the world beyond our doors, and the strangers who become intimate friends and companions. Story creates the context for every encounter, good and bad, happy and sad.

And story is what binds us to every object in our lives.

Story is what tells you to keep your grandmother’s china even though you hate the pattern and would never use it.

Story is what turns a casual encounter into the love of your life or an arch enemy.

There are only two words but a huge distance between “stuff happens” and “stuff happens to me.”

When we take things personally, especially around stuff, it becomes that much harder to view things objectively and make smart decisions.

We find ourselves stuck inside two stories at the same time.

The first story is the story of the object itself—where it came from, how it came to be in your possession and what it means or represents.

The second story is a new story of the thing’s untimely departure or destruction.

Recognizing the stories we tell ourselves and others about our belongings is the first step in being able to separate ourselves from them, whether that separation was initiated with or without our consent.

It may be simplistic to point it out, but here it is: your grandmother is not a teacup.

And we do a disservice to the memory of her when we try to reduce that memory down into a series of objects that inevitably will get lost, broken or otherwise fade away.

Not to mention how difficult it is to contain a lifetime’s worth of memories in a single teacup.

Better to make a cup of tea and tell someone about your grandmother’s significance in your life.

Bake one of her favorite recipes and share that with your neighbor down the hall or around the corner.

The whole point of these touchstones is to keep the memory of someone alive—it’s useful to recognize how challenging that can be when those memories are tied up in something inanimate.

So for today, take a moment to look at your stuff differently.

What would happen if you did lose everything?

How would you cope with the irreparable, damaged quilt or the loss of the family photos?

Would you look for ways to continue mourning them beyond a reasonable time or would you bring those photos to life for someone who never saw the originals?

If you are reading this in a warm dry place, be grateful and of course look for ways to help our fellow citizens in Houston, Corpus Christie and Louisiana.

Think about what’s most valuable, the photos that could easily be swept away or the friends and family that helped you make those memories. Which of those are most important in your life?

If everything is a story, perhaps today is the day you write a different story with a happier, or at least a less tragic ending—since the truth is that you’re alive and the story isn’t over.

For more information on surviving natural disasters, check out these links: Gratitude in the Wake of Sandy

Lifehacker: The Complete Guide of What to do Before, During and After a Disaster

Smithsonian: How to Save Family Heirlooms from Natural Disasters

Money: 10 Worst Things to Donate After a Disaster

University of Minnesota: Coping with Loss After a Disaster

Lifeline: Recovering After a Disaster

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