How to deal with your stuff after a natural disaster

September 11, 2021

The disaster and consequences of Hurricane Ida are still unfolding for many families. And Tropical Storm Nicholas is following right on her heels.

If you are not local to this most recent disaster, watching the shocking rescue images on the news can render one speechless. Sadly, those feelings may be echoed watching the images of  September 11, 2001, as they happened 20 years ago 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 organized and staying organized, telling the difference between urgent and important is essential. In a crisis, the distinction between "urgent" and "important" disappears.

We witness how vital some material things are while realizing that some of the things that heal us the quickest aren't things at all.

In moments like this, we are all 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. Making light of those attachments, minimizing them, or worse, shaming someone for having them seems pointless and even heartless when facing this degree of disruption.

So, let's agree to not.

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 their basic needs are met.

When, or if, 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 disasters, but their things did not.

Many 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.

While this isn't true for everyone, it is for some.

And that is where a valuable lesson can be learned from these experiences that are 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.

While there are only two words between "stuff happens" and "stuff happens to me," there is a vast distance in meaning.

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

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

The first is the story of the object. This story includes 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 separating ourselves from them. It doesn't matter if the separation is 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 helpful to recognize how challenging that can be when those memories are attached to 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 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 Christi, and Louisiana.

Think about what's most valuable...the swept away photos 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

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!