I know what it’s like to lose everything. My life (as I knew it) ended in 1996 when my oldest daughter, Jenna, died while studying abroad. At age 21, her life was just beginning. And I was crushed. Every cell in my being turned inside out and I could not imagine going on. Everything had been lost… or so it seemed.
It’s been 21 years since tragedy struck my family. I’ve spent every day of those years learning what it means to start over when you’ve lost everything. It took every ounce of strength, faith, love, and support that I had to survive, and to find a path for going on. I can now say that not only have I summoned the strength to do so, but I’ve found a way to honor and stay connected to Jenna, fight my way back into life, and feel joy once again. My heart is still broken, and I will forever mourn the fact that Jenna did not get to live out her remarkable life. But I am also whole. Broken and whole. I’ve somehow made my life an expression of love, not despair.
Watching as insurmountable losses have, and continue to be, experienced by the people of Houston, whose lives have been turned inside out and upside down by Hurricane Harvey, I imagine countless thousands of them feel the way I did. Standing in the ruins of their flooded homes, huddled in temporary shelters, grieving unspeakable losses, traumatized by shocking images, their lives as they have known them are forever changed. But as the shock begins to wear off and reality sets in, they will begin to take stock of what they’ve lost. Some have lost or are missing loved ones, including family pets they fear might not have survived. Others have lost their homes and are facing the painful reality of living out the rest of their lives without priceless jewelry, family photos, and irreplaceable heirlooms that have been passed down to them through the generations. My heart aches for them.
The questions “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” have arisen in compassionate hearts as first responders, police officers, and firefighters have put their lives on the line, neighbors have helped neighbors, state and federal agencies have mobilized resources, and nonprofit organizations have swung into action. From across our nation, food, water, shelter, clothing, boats, music, money, and the arms of loving support have flooded into Houston. Compassion is turning into action.
Addressing the urgent matters of survival and sustenance is the clear priority, and while “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers” is a noble concept, emergency services and infusions of time, money, and supplies are what is most needed.
In addition to generous donations, there are even more things we can do to spread the love and support the people of Houston. Here are a few of them:
- Be empathetic and patient with those who have suffered “life losses” and “living losses.” In the early stages of grief, we’re very raw—and distraught beyond reason. This makes us very difficult to be around. We don’t want help; we just want our lives and possessions and loved ones back. Listen empathetically. Be a source of encouragement. But DO NOT say or do anything to put a positive (religious or psychological) spin on what has or is happening.
- Suspend your judgments; and check your opinions, criticisms, impatience, and politics at the door. Open your heart and show kindness. The people of Houston are feeling helpless, scared, confused, angry, humiliated, and possibly guilty about something they feel they should have done or didn’t do. They are living under a dark cloud of fear, dread, despair, and sorrow about everything from their health to their relationships to their work and their reason for being. They’re suffering and in need of support, not judgment.
- Show understanding and compassion. The future these people had envisioned for their themselves, their children, and their families has been forever altered, or is in great peril. In addition to their physical survival, they’re in dire need of understanding.
- Mobilize support services by helping flood victims deal with the traumatic losses they have incurred. You may have access to a community group, company, church, association, professional group or philanthropist that you can inspire to help out. If you’re in the Houston area, you might be able to bring those who have been devastated together to support one another, learn from experts, develop effective survival strategies, and share vital resources.
- Roll up your sleeves, pitch in, and help. Do whatever is within your ability and means. This may include volunteering your time at a shelter, making a donation, or mobilizing a group of people to participate in a local or national campaign that’s been set up to help the families of Houston.
- Help those in your own community who are suffering from living losses, be it the result of natural disasters, homelessness, military service, alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, ALS, or cancer. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to walk with and beside people who feel they’ve lost everything and are broken—as I was 21 years ago. Whether those in need are in a state of hopeless despair or doing everything in their power to stay afloat, you can provide life support and give them a second chance . . . and have a profound influence on their lives.
Many of our worst losses are living losses. Today, we acknowledge the people of Houston who have lost their loved ones, homes, places of work, and possessions to floodwaters and gale-force winds. Just out of sight are those whose friends and family, homes, and priceless possessions have been lost to the ravages of fire, earthquakes, mudslides, war, terrorism, bankruptcy, divorce, disease, or injury. The wind may be taken out of their sails; their hopes and dreams may be gone. As I was two decades ago, they are trying desperately to stave off seemingly bottomless despair—and summon the strength to fight their way back into life. And, like me, they will need to have a few angels in their midst in order to start over.
Rising out of the floodwaters to higher ground and fighting our way back to life is perhaps the greatest triumph of the human spirit. So is turning compassion into action. Both of these things happen one breath and step at a time.