They say that there are 5 stages associated with a person dealing with any type of significant emotional loss,
Yesterday I thought about how potential loss might be very similar, in terms of the emotions one goes through. You grieve the loss before it even occurs.
A raging wildfire (one of the largest on record here in California where I live in the foothills) this past week is now at a safer distance; perhaps still a threat, but today…there is hope on the horizon and I’ve allowed myself time to reflect on a potential loss that now appears unlikely to occur.
Yet…still mindful that winds can shift; still praying for those affected or in the fire’s path; still praying for the firefighters who have taken on a whole new awe for me. How do they do this job, in such heat and smoke, with such danger?
Our family’s evacuation items have been packed for 5 days; the 3 cat crates and cat supplies stand ready in the garage. A pile of bags and a few boxes, and electronics needed for work, are ready at the front door.
Five days ago the imminent threat began with the looming need to abandon our home of some 27 years; a home where we raised two sons and built a family’s life.
We didn’t know how much time we might have. What to pack? How to prioritize a lifetime of memories and precious things?
What would be the greatest impact to leave behind, especially if we lost the house to the fire?
Important documents were an easy and unemotional first step: passports and various identification cards and records thrown in the first box. A mental note now made that having birth certificates and our will stored in our nearby bank’s safety deposit box (a bank that would surely burn before our house in this particular fire!) is a mistake that needs future correction.
The cats come next. Mounting emotions start to claim more and more space in my head. I think how much the cats aren’t going to like being evacuated; not the crates, not the car-ride, and not their evacuation destination (a friend’s house with a resident dog). I know it’s only a temporary shelter so my mind starts thinking about longer-term options. Would we have to rent a home? For how long?
That’s when the panic begins. The realization that this is really happening.
What will it look like, if we lose our home? What will it feel like?
I now start to focus on what memories to take. I grab all of the photo albums; but wait, I know that many of these photos are scanned and likely available somewhere in the cloud. I start to sort through the many frayed albums and pick out a few I think are filled with photos I don’t have stored elsewhere; the wedding and honeymoon pics, various functions. I haven’t looked through these albums in years, yet they seem so vital to me at this moment, as if to lose them means I will forget the memories they have captured.
As I walk through the house I grab a seemingly odd assortment of framed photos. The photo of my husband at a friend’s wedding; the friend gone now for several years, and the photo only one of a handful remaining of the two of them.
Framed photos of long-gone family including beloved parents; many do not exist digitally so must be saved. My husband as an infant in the arms of his dad. A formal portrait of our family when the boys were young. A photo collage I made of my dad containing pictures of him as a young man…these don’t exist elsewhere. I look at his smile, confidence and strength and summon some of that to get through what is increasingly feeling overwhelming and terrifying to me.
Framed photos of our family are everywhere in this house…every age and stage captured and proudly displayed. Many likely exist somewhere in a Dropbox, but just in case, a chosen few are grabbed and shoved into a box.
I go room to room. I realize that I still have my kids’ yearbooks and Eagle Scout badges stored in their closets, even if they’ve been gone for years now. Prized school projects, awards and beloved stuffed animals (worn down from hugs and having been toted around by their toddler owners) are still stored up high in the garage rafters. I leave them all, the emotions creeping higher.
At that moment I realize so many precious things will need to remain.
I text my kids, what do they want me to save.
They respond with just you and dad, mom…and of course, the 3 cats.
I move throughout the house. The tears start to come.
How to choose.
In our bedroom, I look around; so many of my mom’s precious things are there. Quilts she crocheted for the boys; her needlepoint roses (so many roses, they were her favorite); things that have kept her close to me over the years. Even a pair of red pajamas, the ones she was wearing when she passed, still sit folded on a shelf. I had intentions to have them sewn into one of her patchwork quilts someday. I laugh at the notion as she has been gone 11 years now. The pajamas and needlepoint (and most of her other possessions) are passed over but I grab a few quilts for my sons.
Precious things surround me everywhere I go. I am a precious things hoarder I know. Precious things adorn this house; that is intentional. I attach so many memories to so many things.
Someone said to grab jewelry, so I go and look at that. My mom’s silver bracelet is really the only emotional treasure I think of, but then I see the necklace I gave her as a child, then her wedding ring…and the charm bracelet my kids and husband gave me many years ago…so many charms given since then, each with a story and precious significance. In a bag they go.
As I walk through the house I pass so many photos. I glance at them but need to move on. I need to focus on the most precious things.
The Christmas boxes are stored high up in the garage and contain my vast collection of ornaments – all precious things with their own unique stories. Handmade ornaments from the kids (two of everything as they went to the same elementary school and made the same gifts over the years). Unique ornaments from special friends or purchased in special places. Most are one of a kind, irreplaceable. They are a tradition each year as we decorate our Christmas tree; each ornament to be admired and its story told once again.
Then there’s the Christmas tree skirt my mom made when I was a young child, each year’s date sewn onto the skirt in the same silver thread. The stitches become erratic and wobbly over time; you can see my mom’s progression as she aged. And then the year she passed, and I took over. I dismiss my urge to retrieve it; I just can’t pack up everything and the garage is now so smoky.
I finally sit down and start a list. What have I already put aside and what still needs to be retrieved.
Surprisingly, there is actually very little packed up, a few boxes and several bags. Some albums and framed photos. I’m somewhat shocked at this…because it means I am leaving so many precious things.
On the list I become less emotional and more practical. Medications, clothes, glasses (all the different pairs scattered throughout the house!), the list of passwords, the address book, necessary electronics and files related to my work-at-home job. The items that can’t be proactively packed and set aside are marked in yellow highlighter. Hopefully we’ll have time to pack them if evacuated.
Each day since that first day of packing I think of new precious things. It is overwhelming so I try to dismiss the urge to retrieve more and more. A few things do get added, but very few.
There is little comfort knowing I have packed the most important things. Now I become obsessed with watching the fire’s progress. It is scary to imagine losing our home and the surrounding community that has become part of our lives.
I’ve always felt sad for people when watching them on the news in the same situation, but now I feel a whole new affinity for such people. How did they manage; we don’t really know as we’re usually not told. The news only shares the family’s initial shock, their sadness, and perhaps their appreciation that they and their family survived. Later we hear how communities have rebuilt but we don’t know how an individual family moved forward; I think about that. The need to rebuild and move forward. How will that look?
So back to the 5 stages of experiencing loss. I do think they are applicable. I started with denial, a belief it just can’t happen, we won’t lose our home.
I’m not sure I felt anger, but I did feel there was an unfairness about it. Why won’t the governor call out the National Guard, where is all of the mutual aid? I felt irritation over the poor emergency evacuation communication; impatience with the conflicting information.
I definitely bargained. I asked people to pray. I prayed.
And that’s when I think I finally realized that it is the lives that are the precious things. Not just our lives, but the lives of so many others and the firefighters.
With that realization, I somewhat let go of the sadness of losing the things. And there was an acceptance that there really wasn’t anything we could do but wait…and hope…and pray. We knew we could get out with our lives and our cats…and so, the next few days were spent texting nearby friends, many of who were in more imminent danger than us, providing updates, encouragement and love. No more packing. No more worry about precious things that could be forever lost.
Fortunately the weather has been favorable, or perhaps the prayers are really to thank. The fire has become less of a threat.
I am still packed, but feel hopeful.
As I write this I think of all the expensive gadgets we have in this house. Not one was on my list or packed to go.
And as I mentally unpack our evacuation bags and boxes I do have to laugh at its contents. Nothing of real value. But everything completely priceless.