Category Archives: Thought

Thoughts on helping

Lakes Entrance, where I holidayed in 2018

Black Summer bushfires 2019-2020, from the perspective of a Black Saturday survivor

In the face of this monumental disaster, most of us want to help in some way. Some will fight fires, some will volunteer their time at relief centres, some will care for injured wildlife and many will donate to bushfire appeals.

Given the scale of the emergency, many people will know someone directly affected by the fires: first responders, evacuees, those who endure weeks of uncertainty about their homes, those who lose their car, their business, or their home and, most tragically, the bereaved.

I have been thinking about the things that helped me after my home was destroyed and the father of my children was injured on Feb 7th 2009. I have decided to share these thoughts as they may help others identify ways to help those affected by the current fires. Obviously, I am speaking from an individual perspective and what helped (or didn’t help) me might not hold true for the person you are aiming to help, so check in with them, or someone who knows them well to find out what is really needed. I have divided the thoughts into three vague chronological sections to help order my thoughts. They assume the person has lost their home.

The list of ways to help is long. I don’t anticipate or intend that any one person perform all these tasks. Share the jobs, make a roster. Play to your strengths – if you are a good listener then spend time listening. If you are a whizz in the kitchen, cook up some food. If you love real estate, help find a place to rent. If you love animals, take the dog for a walk.

Please don’t take lots of pre-loved stuff to relief centres. The experience after Black Saturday was that there was so much stuff that massive warehouses were needed to store it. Some of the goods were great, but other stuff was really only suitable for the bin. A great deal of time and effort was used up in sorting what would be useful from what needed to go to the tip. Many of the best items were snaffled early, by people who had place to store things and folks who had lost everything missed out.

Give cash, especially in the immediate phase. I cannot stress this enough. Give cash if you can. (Or put money into the person’s account).

Image shows burnt home in ruins with burnt forest behind.
The remnants of my home in Kinglake West, 2009

Immediate phase: shock and basic necessities

The person you are helping has a brain flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. They are likely to be hypervigilant, anxious, easily startled, not sleeping, picking at food or eating compulsively. They may have one clear fixed drive to do something (and that something may seem unwise). They will have difficulty concentrating and have poor memory as a result. They may find making decisions extremely difficult.

You can help by:

  • finding them a place to stay – offer a room, fund a motel and book the room, find a relief centre or other accommodation
  • giving them plenty to drink, trying to avoid too much caffeine and alcohol
  • providing food – light snacky things may be better than full on meals, things with decent nutrition, make sure they are foods the person is familiar with and likes
  • making sure they have somewhere to wash themselves and their clothes
  • ensuring they have a working phone with charger and credit
  • giving them toiletries (but check that they haven’t already been given 20 tubes of toothpaste)
  • taking them to the doctor or chemist to get any medications or dressings they may need, consider some eye drops for smoke-affected eyes
  • giving them some clothes, preferably new or near new – take them to a shop if they are up to it or ask them what they would like. Don’t throw out the clothes they are wearing – these may be the only things the person owns. Ask before you wash those clothes – bag them until you know it’s okay to do so, the clothes will likely reek of smoke.
  • minding children so that adults can have conversations
  • finding somewhere for any pets, and buy any necessities for the pets
  • making a roster/duty list with friends to provide support, without doubling up
  • letting the person’s employer know what is happening, only with the consent of the person
  • offering to be a central contact point for friends of the person who want information – again, with consent. The barrage of messages and phone calls can be overwhelming. 
  • avoiding giving them too much stuff – they have nowhere to put it

Most of all you can help by listening – to silence, to their story repeated many times, to anxieties about their community, to fears, to the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘I should haves’. You may need to spend hours listening and just holding space. You don’t need to find answers to the ‘what ifs’ and ‘I should haves’, you just need to listen – without judgement. If you can find specific information about the person’s community, do so. Divvy up the tasks of listening and information gathering so that there is one person available to listen and provide company. You might need to find a counsellor or take them to a doctor. (The VicEmergency site has some basic information with links: https://www.emergency.vic.gov.au/relief/#personal_well_being) You might need to debrief after all the listening, ripple out to someone less affected – don’t rely on the person you are helping to debrief your own trauma.

The kitchen that was

Next phase: dealing with insurers, finding a temporary home

Having a place to be private and to feel settled can be really important. Some people may prefer to stay with family and friends but this may only be a short term option. Having somewhere to feel safe and secure is important. There may be limited options near to where the person you are helping lived. They may wish to be far away from the smoke and the burnt landscape. They may want to be a close as possible to remain connected to their community.

  • Help the person make any insurance claims. Write down a list of the things that have been lost. You may have photos to assist. Some insurers want very detailed lists.
  • Help the person identify any payments or grants they might be entitled to
  • Help the person replace any lost documents, bank/credit cards etc.
  • Support the person you are helping to identify their needs and their priorities in finding a new place to live. Do they have insurance that covers rent for a year?
  • Make a list of all the suitable rental properties in the area they have specified and arrange a timetable to view the properties. Drive them to the appointments if necessary. Advocate with real estate agents. Be there as a second pair of ears. Offer to read over contracts with them.
  • Make a list of the items the person needs to start a new home. You could start with the bare bones – fridges, tables, beds etc are pretty universal, but ask about specifications.
  • Help the person go shopping and tick off the items on the list as they are bought. This is also the time when donations of good quality secondhand items can be really helpful – match them to the person’s requirements and try to keep them in line with the person’s sense of style if possible. Consider buying brands of small appliances the person is familiar with – it’s hard work trying to learn the way new TVs, microwaves etc work when they all have to be done at once with a traumatised brain.
  • Clean the rental place before they move in, if needs be
  • Help them move stuff into the new house, unpack it and remove the packaging for them
  • Mind children during the moving in
  • Do a big grocery shop (or coordinate among friends) to buy all the non-perishable pantry staples like salt, pepper, cooking oil, pasta, rice plus cleaning products, cloths etc
  • Make some meals for the freezer
  • Have a look in your odds and sods drawer and think about the things that people might suddenly need but that you mightn’t think to buy – scissors, bandaids, candles, matches, torches, batteries

Keep listening. Listen about the fatigue, the ongoing sleep disturbance, the anger, the recriminations, the survivor guilt, the displacement and the difficulty making decisions. Keep listening and find help if needed.

Image shows a suburban backyard with shed, metal slide and a neatly mown lawn.
New beginnings, a blank slate to make ours

Longer term: finding or rebuilding a permanent home, identity

How this plays out will unfold over time and involve more listening. There’s no correct way to re-establish your life after trauma. One factor associated with the best chance of recovery is to have rich social connections, so you can help by facilitating a person to be gently accepted into a new community and assist with them maintaining links to the place they have left.

In the longer term you can help the person navigate the rebuilding process, if that is what they choose to do. If they are relocating and wish to buy a home you could help them do some reconnaissance, come along to lend support at an auction or during the sales process. It may take years for the person to make a final decision, or they may change course. Support them and listen.

Losing everything you own can strip you of a sense of identity. That’s why in the early phases it’s important to give the person you are helping as much agency as they can take on when replacing lost items. A wardrobe of clothes and house of stuff that doesn’t feel like ‘you’ serves only to underline the loss. Some of the brightest moments in my recover have been the items returned or given to me that link me to the past: the book I’d lent a friend, the egg beater and Christmas ornament that were my grandmother’s, a book with an inscription in my mother’s handwriting. So if you have any items that the person had lent to you, return them. Find photos and give them on a USB or share via the cloud. Find some memorabilia. Don’t assume the person wants everything to be the same as before the fire. New editions of previously loved books might not be what the person wants. Perhaps they need some LPs or CDs? Perhaps a playlist of songs curated from a happy time? Perhaps a cookbook of family recipes? Perhaps some cuttings from your garden?

This is a long list and will not have covered all the ways to help. My advice may not be right for the person you are trying to help – always ask them or someone who knows them really well. Most of all, keep listening.

With support, the person you are helping will not only survive this disaster, but likely grow and thrive over the many years that recovery takes.

My love to you all. x

image shows sandy pathway through a tunnel of tea-trees.
Shelter the person as they travel their path

Brave New World (with apologies to Aldous Huxley)

Posts have been few and far between recently. I have been writing – ‘You Leave Again’ has been extensively edited and a new poem called ‘Mathematical Relationship’ with references to simultaneous equations, trigonometry and calculus. I haven’t posted these since I am considering submitting them for publication or competition – who knows what chance I may have? Probably slim but no harm trying. Part of the ‘Brave New World’ – not as Huxley envisaged, but rather part of this journey of reinvention I am undertaking. It is four months now since I started writing. I am writing less, but hopefully improving. I am beginning to see myself as a writer. Even a poet. Today I had to confront my ‘impostor syndrome’. With the support of a dear friend I read three poems at an ‘open mic’ at the Dan O’Connell. I chose a bushfire theme but did not want to be too bleak and so read ‘Red Band’, ‘Snow Weather’ and ‘Wind’. I am pleased with how I read (despite my tremor and palpitations) and the audience were attentive – one chap even came up to me later and told me he had liked ‘Snow Weather’. He said that he could really see the snow. I enjoyed the reading – even (especially?) the adrenaline buzz. I have no doubt I’ll go back for more. What of the therapeutic nature of reading? Is it different from writing and blogging? On his blog, Andy Jackson described the reading of a poem as creating a room into which others can enter. I understand now what he means. As I read ‘Wind’ one of the women in the audience smiled as I read the line ‘ and with it tug a thousand tiny balloons’. At that moment I thought – ‘you get it, you know exactly what I am saying’ – and felt joyous exhilaration. I could get used to that. So this Brave New World – this new identity. Who am I now? Mother, daughter, sister, friend, doctor, student, and poet. I am all of those things and more.

Into the light

The lights came to us on Saturday night. Through misting rain, a procession of children brought luminous joy to a cattle shed in Whittlesea. The lanterns, hand-crafted by children from two primary schools, glowed gently, accompanied by the song of young children. A star-shaped lantern guided the children across the oval to converge at the entrance to the shed, where a beguiling shadow puppet performance unfolded in the rain. My sons’ excited faces were infused with the pride of achievement and a sense of belonging; my vision blurred by a mother’s tears. Awaiting us in the shed was a masterful exhibition – a journey through pain and loss into the light. Works echoing three time periods – before, the moment of change, after – were arranged to allow for viewers to undertake a personal journey through the exhibition. Paths of black wood-chips, white salt and earth brown twisted between the exhibits. Works in fabric, natural materials, pottery and of fire-altered materials demonstrated the depth of talent in the community and the therapeutic nature of the creative process. Symbolism was evident in many of the works, benefiting from repeated viewings. A ceramic made by one of the schoolchildren depicted a blackened tree and the words ‘What happens now?’. Indeed, what does happen now? For many the recovery journey has only just begun – we remain fragile, sensitive to small perturbations. Our resilience is reduced, our defences weakened.

Gathered in the shed were people willing to share – bushfire survivors, supporters both professional and voluntary. The mood was buoyant, festive even, but respectful and considered. I was there to do a job: to read one of my poems to an audience for the first time. I had not rehearsed other than read the poem aloud at the dining room table a couple of times. Was I nervous? A little, but also proudly excited just like my five year old who held my hand and stood with me on the stage. I introduced myself, explaining the amazing writing journey I have taken over these last three months and of the support given to me by the ‘Conversations’ group and the ‘Express Yourself’ workshops. When I said I had written thirty poems in that time excited whoops echoed about the shed (thanks Jesse!). And so I read my poem ‘Home’. Slowly, savouring each word, I spoke it aloud and sent it into the crowd. My first poem – both written and performed – and one that I no longer find has much power over me when I read it on the page. But spoken aloud to an audience with shared experience it seemed to have life, power anew, and I left the stage elated, proud and with a new sense of identity. I have survived. My life has meaning, purpose – a future of new experience beckons. Art and community give us meaning. Through them we heal. My creative journey is just beginning.

My sincere thanks to Meme and Stefanie for including me in the program. And to my support crew – Stacey, Grant, Jesse, Leanne, Sebastian and Jeremy.

Angry writing

Tonight I wrote a poem that I’m not sure if I will, or indeed, should, post. The writing is about one aspect of charity after the bushfire. It is a subject that I thought I felt mildly annoyed about. However, as I wrote I realised that what I thought mere annoyance was unabashed rage. As I sat in a  suburban cafe genteelly drinking my latte I found venomous words pouring onto the page, written by my trembling hand.  I was shocked by the depth of my feeling. By my fury. And this rage is directed at people who were, no doubt, well intended. Who meant only to help me and others like me. I’m sure they have no idea how much pain their charity gave me.  They don’t deserve the lambasting they receive in my three stanzas of rage. Yet, I cannot look away from this anger. I cannot pretend it isn’t there. And if I have experienced these feelings, then it is almost certain that other recipients of charity after disasters have felt this way. It is one of those ugly truths that we would prefer to shun. To disown. To ignore and hope it will go away. And ‘proper’ social behaviour dictates that we should be grateful. To passively smile and accept all that is given, recognising how lucky we are.

Having written my piece I now have to decide what to do with it. Should I post it for all to see and risk alienating or offending potential readers? Should I file it away and hope that the writing has served to relieve the burden of the anger, even by a fraction? But, by hiding it from sight does that indicate that some feelings are to be ashamed of? That we cannot be emotionally true? By not publishing this poem do I continue the disenfranchisement of other disaster-affected people? Should I allow them the chance to recognise their own feelings, their anger? What are the ethics of this decision? How do I balance non-maleficence with the possibility of benefit for others? And, quite apart from the ethical and social considerations there is the underlying merit of the poem as a piece of writing. It is undoubtedly technically raw and I’m sure I could polish it, give it better meter, be more inventive. My concern is that, by editing it, I may lose the power of the invective and, thus, its emotional truth.

So, I will sleep on these issues and let you all know what I have decided tomorrow.

Express Yourself writers’ workshop

My thanks to the City of Whittlesea Bushfire Recovery Committee for arranging a series of workshops covering a wide variety of creative arts. Today I was lucky enough to attend a five-hour workshop run by Arnold Zable  (http://www.arnoldzable.com/), a Melbourne author and creative writing teacher. He must have a prodigious memory for he can recite large pieces of text from previous workshop and class members without referring to notes. I was touched that he remembered me from a previous workshop and could recall the poem I had written about anger.  We performed three writing exercises exploring – a moment in time, an object and a character. Most challenging was the character piece, in which I attempted to describe my five year-old son in prose. I wrote about a magical moment fishing with my father and a pod of dolphins for the first exercise and it was the first time I had written creative prose for many years. Indeed I suspect the last time I wrote creative prose was in my Year 12 exam – and that is quite some time ago now! I may work on it some more and post it for your reading pleasure (I hope). The object exercise I completed in verse and will tidy up and publish on the blog, perhaps as early as tonight. The women attending the group (where are you men?) were wonderfully supportive of each other and had interesting stories to tell. Our styles were varied, but themes of pain, trauma and loss predominated as one would expect from such a gathering (and thankfully a box of tissues was located). The only problem with attending such a workshop – now I have even more passion to write.

Some thoughts about therapeutic writing and blogging

When I started writing I thought it would provide me with means to record my feelings (and the events) for posterity and that it might also allow me to process some of the grief and emotions. I had no idea that there is a body of evidence surrounding the value of therapeutic writing. Indeed, my blog subtitle was written in complete ignorance of this fact. So, what has the process been like for me so far? And how has having a blog affected this? The first five poems I wrote were written in one day and seemed to emerge almost fully formed without conscious thought. Some others have also arrived in this fashion but others have taken considerably more work. I have been writing for about six weeks now and I must say that I feel somewhat emotionally spent although I know there are many more subjects with which I could (and probably will) deal. I suspect that the benefits may take some time to manifest (and I confess I have not read the literature). I am trying to write some more positive, self-affirming works in order to counteract the onslaught of negativity.  Some very tangible benefits have been the positive feedback I have received from those  who have read the poems (though they are telling me in person or emailing me instead of commenting here). Several people have cried and one friend told me last night that reading ‘Suburban haven’ was just like being taken for a walk through my new home, which is exactly what I intended (we’ll see how accurate a picture I created this weekend when she visits).  The blog has been helpful in that it has encouraged me to write more – I need to feel as though I have a (potential) audience – perhaps I am an exhibitionist? The pressure to publish has thus made me more productive but also means that I am likely to post pieces that really require more work and, for that, I apologize. I am also trying to be less conscious of any literary merit the poems might have and to concentrate of getting the feelings and thoughts onto the page – once again, I’m sorry but I guess you will all stop reading if it becomes too self-indulgent. So, thanks again for reading. If anyone has any ideas or themes about which I could write I’d love to hear them. (I’m not running out though).

A most difficult poem

‘Return’ has been a challenging poem for me to write. I have started it several times over the past few weeks. Tonight I felt impelled to finish it. I changed the structure to stanzas with four short lines and a ‘hanging’ word (incidentally I have almost no knowledge of correct poetic terminology). The ‘hanging’ words are, by and large, those that I wish to have the most impact. I feel exhausted but satisfied that the thoughts and memories have been spoken now. I can barely manage to read it again at the moment so I hope there are no typos that I have missed in posting it so quickly. My thanks to you for reading, as always.

My identity crisis

I really did hit the question mark key by accident and it spawned one angry little poem. I wanted to write something metaphysical but, instead, wrote three far more prosaic pieces. Oh well. Next time. And there’s always room for editing – in the case of these three I suspect lots! Identity is something that I have struggled with post-fire and I know that I am not alone.

Finally the day is in writing

Tonight’s poem is likely to be revisited many times for editing. It barely scratches the surface of the emotions encountered when considering the events of Black Saturday and my personal role in them. I’m not particularly happy with it as a piece of writing but am glad that it is written. Perhaps it will act as a catalyst for a deeper (and more literary) examination of the events and issues. The poem is called ‘That day’ – you’ll find it in the list of poems. Thanks, as always, for reading.

a note on themes

Most of the poems you encounter on this blog will reference the events of Black Saturday. However, at times you may find others – Overdose and Wirrawilla for example – that have been written about other events in my life. Grief and loss are likely to emerge as strong themes…