On February 16th 2015, at around 4:15pm, I received a call while at work from a friend who lives in my apartment building. She said “Chris, there’s a fire in our building and we’ve been evacuated. But don’t worry; the fire is on the opposite side of the building from where we both live.” At first I was somewhat relieved, then it hit me… we live on opposite sides of the building, so it’s impossible for the fire to be on the opposite side from where we BOTH live!
I cancelled the rest of my appointments and hurried home, along the way getting more text messages and calls from concerned family and friends who lived close by. On arrival, I saw that the flames were ravaging the side of the building. The firefighters were working vigorously to stop the advancement of the flames but the fire was spreading to the roof and was creeping closer to my apartment that was located on the top floor, south corner of the building.
I recall looking around at the eclectic crowd of people watching the fire. There were many shocked and sad faces. I heard a lady complaining about how her suite across the court yard would surely smell like smoke, not aware that she was standing next to a couple who were literally watching their apartment being engulfed in flames. A young woman approached and burst into tears, fearing for her cat that was still inside (I heard days later that the cat had in fact died). There was so much activity: from emergency crews, to media, to victim services workers, to onlookers.
I felt kind of numb, trying to comprehend the scale of the loss that might happen and feeling powerless to do anything about it. I was thinking about the items that were at risk: my laptop, pictures and eccentric collectables, wishing that I had opted for contents insurance instead of playing the odds. After 3 to 4 hours the flames made it to my apartment. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it turned out to be almost a complete loss, with the exception of a few salvaged items covered in particulate/ mold (including my Geordi LaForge decorate plate, wine barrel shelf, sports jerseys and golf clubs).
That night the residents met at the local community centre and were provided updates on the fire and services for those affected. I didn’t sleep well that night as my mind continued to race. The next day was the most challenging as I felt mentally and physically exhausted. I was more emotional than usual, not as much due to the loss of my home but from the outpouring of support and kind words I was receiving. I took the day off to figure out the next step. I felt more at ease after stopping by Como Lake and sitting calmly for about an hour.
I began to put my situation into perspective and re-frame some of the thoughts I was having that consisted of a lot of ‘would have, could have, should have’ thinking. I realized how fortunate I am, as a therapist, to meet with some incredibly resilient people each week who have experienced unimaginable hardship and trauma. I thought to myself, if they can get through and cope with their circumstances, I can deal with this; I fed off of their strength. ‘Stuff is stuff,’ I told myself. ‘It can be replaced. Life goes on.’ I pondered how the situation could have been way worse.
I also chose to focus on the silver linings, including the incredible response from family, friends, colleagues and the community as a whole. I was very moved by how the community rallied around those of us who were impacted; Coquitlam’s true colours were shining through. There was still so much to be grateful for, even in this challenging time.
It’s not necessarily the situation itself, but one’s perception of the situation that leads to how traumatizing it will be for the individual. Everybody reacts differently to a loss and that’s OK. Here are a few ideas that can be helpful if you experience a similar circumstance in your life.
1) Take time to grieve the loss. Talking with someone you trust is important when experiencing a trauma. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone, or don’t have an established social network, do some writing. Even 20 minutes of writing, 4 days in a row can be cathartic and extremely beneficial.
2) Don’t be afraid to reach out for and accept support if you require it. In this situation, the community rallied and donated the necessities, including clothing, food and money. Fortunately, the support is there to assist the families that need it the most when emergencies like this occur.
3) Keep your routine intact. Focus on the essentials: sleep, nutrition, exercise and connecting with positive people. Incorporate other strategies to boost well-being, including: breathing exercises, meditation, writing, yoga, mantras, guided imagery, gratitude exercise, connecting with nature, volunteering, etc.
4) If you continue to ruminate on the past, worry about the future, or focus on something you don’t have control over, try to redirect your attention back to the moment or focus on the positives (there are always positives, no matter how small they are!).
5) Adopt an action oriented mindset. If something can be done to improve the situation, set some goals and start to work towards them.
If the intense emotions and thoughts persist and impact your ability to engage in life, please consider connecting with a clinical counsellor, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
A profound thank-you to everyone who responded to this situation with kindness, compassion and generosity. It made all the difference!
“Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”-Viktor Frankl