One year ago today, an F3 tornado came through Goderich, forever changing so many of us. In our case it destroyed our vehicles and our home. I have been blogging our experience ever since that fateful day. To read our story from the beginning, click here.
Here we are, the day has arrived.
August 21 2012.
Just another date on the calendar, that feels anything but ordinary.
As the calendar flipped to August this year, I quickly realized it wasn't just the second month of summer anymore...the entire month has taken on new meaning now. Throughout the last few weeks my heart has felt heavier. My emotions are running higher. My heart is beating faster and I am purposefully exhaling more often, making a conscious effort to remain calm.
I walk down my street and remember. I always remember, but there's something about August, it's different. It's "more". I sit at the beach, staring out at the water beyond the Salt Mine, beyond the pier, beyond the breakwall, and I remember. I am making pickles out of cucumbers from my garden and remember. I grate zucchini and I remember. I watch the tomatoes ripening on the vines in the garden and remember. This is exactly where we were last year. Making pickles, googling zucchini recipes, preparing to make salsa. I see the "Taste of Huron" banner hanging from the hydro poles by the pillars on Hwy 8 and remember what that banner looked like afterwards. I make plans for Makenna's birthday party and remember. Another, year, another birthday...we have come full circle...we're right back where we were a year ago.
We're back at August.
I have struggled over which approach to take with this "one year later" post. I thought I had it figured it out and was halfway through it when I attended a professional development session on grief and bereavement counselling.
And then my thoughts about this post changed.
That session was exactly 1 week ago. 51 weeks after the tornado. And by the end of it I was in tears.
This past year has brought so much heartache, so many transitions, so much change. There have been highs and lows. In my family, we have been involved in professional counselling, we have tried to give back, and we have celebrated our successes.
And 51 weeks later, I walked out of a room able to look back and gain a bit of perspective.
We suffered a loss. We did. And we grieved that loss. In different ways we are still grieving it. What I came out of that training with last week, was the understanding that it is okay. That it is healthy. Expected. Encouraged. Maybe not by society, but by the helping professions. By the experts, who really know what they are talking about.
I came away feeling validated.
What happened to us, and so many others in our community, was unexpected. It was sudden, shocking, severe and traumatic. It came out of nowhere. We didn't have time to prepare ourselves for it, physically or mentally. 12 seconds earlier we were living one kind of life. 12 seconds later everything we knew to be true was different, changed, gone. There wasn't time to prepare for that, warm up to the idea, accept the idea or try to alter the outcome. In the blink of an eye, in 12 short seconds, we were changed forever.
When something like that happens to you, it effects every part of your life. Physically, Psychologically, Spiritually, and more...it affects you all the way down to your very psyche. Your life is now divided into 2 timeframes; everything that happened before, and everything that happened after.
But the event, is just one moment in time. Now you have to spend the rest of your life dealing with what comes next. The process, is another thing entirely. In this past year, August 21 2011 was not the most difficult day for me. The process of dealing with what happened, has been much more difficult.
I felt validated when the speaker shared her opinion that there are no "stages" of grief. That grief cannot be clearly divided, categorized and compartmentalized into neat and tidy stages. That yes, in the beginning, many people show similarities in the way they are grieving. Shock, trauma, denial. Those are somewhat predictable. But you can't predict what will come next for someone. And what comes next for one person will be different than what comes next for someone else. The way a person handles something traumatic in their life depends on such a myriad of factors specific to their situation - what else is going on in their life at that time, what supports they already have in place, what their spiritual and cultural beliefs are, how they manage stress, whether they have been through a similar situation before etc etc etc...all of these factors and more vary so widely from person to person, and influence how they grieve. So of course it makes sense that no one's experience will be the same as anyone else's. No one should be compared to anyone else, no one should be judged by anyone else. You don't know what else is going on or has already gone on in their life, you don't know how their spiritual/cultural beliefs influence them, you don't know what types of supports this person has, or if they are healthy supports...you just don't know what it's like to be them. You can guess how you would handle it, based on your experiences, your life. But you can't know what it's like to be them. You can't know how they will react when traumatized and in shock. You can even be suffering from the same event, as so many were and are here, but you'll be suffering in different ways. No two people on Earth, including those in the same family, in the same household, experience it the same way. You don't know how it feels to be someone else. You don't share their persona. You don't live inside their mind. You can empathize and sympathize, but you simply cannot know how they feel. These were the words of an expert in the field. Words that validated everything I have been feeling and trying so hard to convey this past year.
There is no recipe for how to handle something like this. It doesn't come with instructions. There's no path laid out. Just because someone else has suffered trauma in their life, they haven't suffered this trauma, or the way this trauma affects your life at this time. We should not compare losing your home to fire to losing your home to a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake a mudslide...or a tornado, even though in all cases the home was lost. Each occurance could be horrible, life changing, traumatic. But they are not the same, and they are not experienced the same way from one person to the next. One is not guaranteed to be easier than the other. One is not guaranteed to be less horrible than the other. They are simply just different, and experienced differently by each person.
When you suffer such a severe, unexpected, sudden trauma like that, there is no right or wrong way on how to work your way through it. What I took away from this speaker, was that you cannot begin to heal until you have accepted the reality of your loss, face and work through the pains and emotions that come with the loss, and adjust to your new environment and life that includes that loss. You never "get over it". It becomes part of who you are and you work towards learning how to carry on with that now being a part of who you are. Some people can come to that on their own. Some people need the help of professionals to get to that frame of mind.
There is no timeframe on that. And it will be different for each person.
She used the analogy of a slinky. Remember that toy? (Everyone loves a slinky!). Imagine the slinky pulled right out, your arms stretched wide. Grief, she said, works like the coils of that slinky. You move forward a bit, then back. Then forward a bit more, then back again, then forward, and back again but not as far...and on and on and on. Throughout the process, something could trigger you and you could end up right back at the beginning. It's not a 12 step process, its not something you just have to "get done".
If you are on the outside looking in, in order to help someone through their trauma, first of all, you need to be patient. It is a well known and proven fact that trauma changes the way a person's brain works, no matter how old they are. You may believe a person is acting inappropriately, but you have no right to judge or presume anything. Concrete help is what's best. Food. Babysitting. Kleenex, laundry, making phone calls, etc. Sometimes all that is needed is your presence so a person knows they aren't physically alone in the world. You cannot "fix" it, so please don't try. Don't say it'll be okay. Don't say time will heal. Don't try to minimize the situation by telling of a worse one. That may all be true, but it won't help the person suffering. It won't help them feel heard, validated, understood.
Above all else, please: Listen to understand, not to say something back.
Being at this presentation last Tuesday night did something else for me...it made all those negative comments, the hate, the bullying and targeting I described to you a couple months ago seem so small and insignificant. It helped me to see, and validated for me, that the people who made and are still making those comments really have no idea how I feel or what I think, or they think they do and simply don't care. They are so caught up in their own stuff, in their own beliefs about the situation, in their own...whatever...that all that lashing out at me carries no real weight or validity over me and my life at all. Everyone is entitled to their informed opinion, but what I learned here, from someone who knows this subject on every level possible, drove home to me that my experience this past year has nothing to do with anyone else. This is about my interpretation of what happened in my life and all the judgements, presumptions and accusations others have made about me, and/or my family, are about them and how they feel about what happened, and should have no bearing on how I feel or what I do. Sure, there are people who don't like what I've said or done. Yes, there are people who don't like the way I have handled this, but what else is new? Is there a way I could have pleased everyone? Why would I be obligated to? Everyone reacts differently. So what if I chose to blog my story and make it public and others didn't? That was my way of dealing. Of getting it out of my head. My way is no better or worse than anyone else's - it's just my way.
So, at the end of this PD session, everyone around the room took turns sharing their feedback. The purpose of this session was to discuss supporting a parent who has lost a child in a sudden, unexpected way. Now, I am a mother myself and in no way am I comparing losing a child to losing your home, so please don't twist my words. What we talked about was how people grieve traumatic, sudden, unexpected deaths. I felt like everything she said made sense for what had happened here in Goderich as well. When my turn came, my voice wavered as I admitted I had not lost a parent, or a child, but had survived a traumatic experience and that a lot of what she said hit home with me. I was in tears by the end of the sentence.
Because it did hit home to me. It did speak to me and make sense to me. We suffered a loss. A traumatic loss that we needed to grieve. And until we accept the reality of that loss, face and work through the pain and emotions of it and adjust to our new reality, which includes everything from the new skyline of our neighbourhood, Harbour Park and Benmiller, to the gaping holes on the square to our fear of thunderstorms, we will not be able to move forward. I mean this on both an individual basis, and on a collective community basis.
Over this past year, I believe I, and my family, have done a lot of work to move in the direction of healing. I sought out counselling immediately for my kids, and when I realized I needed it for myself, I forced myself not to let my pride get in the way of reaching out for help. I just knew I couldn't deal with this any other way. I accepted the reality that I needed anti anxiety medication, am still to this day 100% confident that was the right thing for me, and, with the help of my TFF (Tornado Friend Forever) dealt with that realization as best I could and tried to be realistic about my limits, triggers and fears. I believe wholeheartedly that the professional counselling I received and participated in with my children through our Family Health Team, which we were referred to through our family doctor, has been a huge step in our ability and willingness to heal. I have no issue sharing that with you, because there is nothing to be ashamed of or embarassed about. I know I did what was best for me, and for us. I hope others that need this kind of assistance had or have the courage to seek it out as well.
Another part of my process of healing: I cried. Oh did I cry. I cried and cried and cried.
This past week, as August 21 inched closer and closer, as emotions were clearly running high throughout this town, its neighbourhoods and between the friends, residents and people who have been through so much, I found myself crying again. For all that we experienced, for what we lost, and for what we have gained.
The speaker that night reminded me that there are actually gifts we have gained in this past year. We have made connections with people. Our neighbours, people in the community we didn't know before August 21, and people from beyond. Deeper, more meaningful connections that hold a greater understanding because of what we have collectively witnessed. Forever Friendships that have changed on so many levels from shared experiences that will never be forgotten. My relationship with my brother, which has always been very positive, but is immeasurably deeper now. I cannot put this part into words and feel I have explained it accurately; the gift we have gained from our connections with others throughout this past year.
We have also received the greatest opportunity to learn, grow and change. I have gained self awareness. What I have been through struck me down, stripped me back and forced me to really look at and get to know myself. What my limits are and what I am capable of. The effect I have had on others, and the effects others have had on me. These are the words from that same speaker, that echo my feelings and thoughts. I am more secure in who I am, what my passions are, and what I believe in. I think twice more often, but I also feel less obligated to apologize for the choices I make and the way I live my life. "The more you love your decisions, the less you need others to love them".
Thank you, Kate Burdett-Hough, for giving me this perspective.
This was not how I originally intended this one year later post to read. But now, looking back, I think its a good summary and I finish feeling like I have left everything out here on the "virtual" page. After this, after today, I think I'm done. It's been a full year, today will be a surreal, crazy day for me and once its over I think it's time for this story, this series to end. Every story has to have an ending.
Again, I feel at a loss for words on how to thank you for all you have done for me, all you have been to and for me. You have carried me, you have built me up, you have given me strength, encouragement, hope and love. So many of you have sent me private messages, introduced yourself to me while out in the community, stopped by my house (all of them, lol), to say hello, connected with me via twitter and more. Those of you that knew me long before this ever happened have stood by me, grounded me, parented my children when I could not and kept me sane. "They" say it takes a village to raise a child. This village we have created here has raised me up through many tough moments and I am forever grateful and humbled by that and by you. Many of you have tornado stories of your own that the world should to hear to understand. I wish they could.
The Story of Us blog will of course, continue on, but now it's time for me to get back to the writing I was doing before...if I can remember what that was, or how to do it. I hope you will continue to follow along. What will be will be, what comes up and presents itself will do so, and who knows what the future holds for me, my writing and this blog.
A year ago, on August 12 2011 I wrote about my frustrations in not knowing where my life was headed. Not knowing what was coming next. Wishing I had a crystal ball.
9 days later an F3 tornado roared through my life and in 12 seconds turned everything I thought I knew upside down. Even if I had have had that crystal ball, I wouldn't have been able to find the damn thing.
Do me a favour? Close your eyes and count it out. 12 seconds. Then open your eyes and look around you.
And simply be grateful that everything is still where it was 12 seconds ago.
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