Observations Amidst Tragedy

This is the family, evacuated in the days AFTER learning we’ve lost two houses and anxiously awaiting the fate of three more.

The last 12 days have been unimaginably difficult. Midday Sunday, October 8th, we lost my grandmother, Trude Plack. It’s hard to overstate the importance she played in my life and so many others. A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, mother of four and grandmother of 10, she was the definition of class, integrity, and selflessness. She was the center of our family’s universe and role model for any decent human. I needn’t say much more because if you were fortunate to have any interaction with her, however brief, you were surely left with a sense that you were in the presence of a special woman.

Twelve hours after Trude’s passing, in the time it took Jessica and I to fly from Sydney to San Francisco, an apocalyptic firestorm swept through my hometown of Santa Rosa erasing vast swaths of the region. Included in the destruction were both my parents’ respective homes, along with all of their (and a substantial portion of our) belongings.

We left Sydney for a funeral and arrived to a catastrophe.

The following weekend, Jessica lost her grandmother Lucille Rudock, as well. A woman whom I wished I had more time to know given the immense light, warmth, and depth of soul she seemed to possess.

Throughout that week, my extended North Bay family anxiously awaited to see if in fact more of our homes were lost. In total, nearly 20 of us stayed at my brother and sister-in-law’s place throughout the week. We collectively jumped every time a text or Nixle alert came through — How bad was it? How many more friends had lost their homes? Do we know any of the dead? What should we say at Trude’s funeral? What should we say at Lucille’s funeral? How do we get back up to Santa Rosa to help/inspect/grieve?

Though we’re still very much in the throws of these tragedies, they’ve provided a brutally effective learning opportunity that I would be remiss to ignore.

I thought I’d share some of these observations and learnings or at least, document them for posterity should I need them again later in life:

Relatives OR Friends + Effort = Family.

Trude’s love language was certainly Acts of Service. She was so eminently selfless and the center of our collective orbit that I quietly feared her absence meant a gradual distance might build within the family. I now understand that she lives on in each of us. The broader Plack/Rosenthal/Vigil/Ross crew is amazingly resilient and stubbornly loyal. If we can manage to have fun on couches and air mattresses during a week like this, we can do anything.

Condolences matter. Support matters.

If you suspect someone is hurting, reach out. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Don’t worry about “bothering them” during a difficult time or not knowing what to say. They don’t know what to say either, but the circumstances are real and unavoidable and they have no choice but to confront each shifting moment. They may not return the call immediately or at all, but it means something. Truly. Most people won’t ask for help but the mere offer can carry immense weight.

Every supportive gesture is a small breath of wind at someone’s back, carrying them forward.

There is no right way to grieve.

Feel what you need to feel when you need to feel it. It’s ok to laugh when you’re sad and it’s ok to cry over silly shit. We are unimaginably complex beings and stress will find a way to manifest itself regardless of conscious efforts at compartmentalization or repression.

Sub note: “It’s going to be ok” didn’t seem to help at all. Of course “it will be ok” but that doesn’t mean it is at present. If I broke a leg, you wouldn’t tell me to go for a run just because it’s going to heal eventually. It fucking hurts right now.

Grieving a loss is just that.

Something was lost and there is now a void in your life. Even if everything else is unchanged, a portion of you is lonely. When you lose something like a home, you’re mourning all the memories associated with that place — meals, parties, holidays, sleepovers, sneaking out, guests. This of course seems odd since you still have the memories and just lost the “stuff.” The challenge in our case, is that the memories are currently scarred with the burns of the fire. Each recollection pulls on a wound not yet healed. A reminder that there is still pain beneath the surface. “Ah shit, we lost the wedding dress/yearbooks/jewelry/childhood toys we were hoping to pass down.”

Humans crave equilibrium/normalcy.

In times of tragedy, we yearn for normalcy so our efforts go to the restoration of “normal.” Congressman Tom Lantos was known for saying “The veil of civilization is paper thin” and in times of catastrophe, that paper is made out of mundane normalcy. It was amazing to watch myself and others scramble to re-establish routines whilst in painful limbo.

Garbage bins pushed to the street awaiting trucks that wouldn’t come. Utility crews fighting to establish power to neighborhoods that won’t be repopulated for years. Postal workers delivering mail to smouldering hulks that were once homes.

All our collective efforts go toward reversion to the previous state.

Humans are overwhelmingly good.

The amount of pure kindness sent our way over the last two weeks has been humbling. Housing, meals, shoulders to cry on, temporary distractions, words of encouragement. Nearly everyone has the capacity for immense good even if we aren’t always altruistic.

There are in fact, very few truly shitty human beings.

Shitty humans just get all the air time. We had more people offer us their homes in the first 24 hours than were arrested for looting in Sonoma County all week.

But, terrible people do exist which brings me to a really strange observation:

Social norms and ideals are not required for survival during a crisis and as such, can be forgotten.

Sociologist/Anthropologist friends will surely have a model to explain this. Some hierarchy of societal needs I’m sure…

For example: When word of looting emerged in the early hours of the fire, the following words exited my mouth: “Don’t bother arresting them. Just put them out of their misery and get back to rescuing people.” A quick glance around the room showed those present generally agreed with me. The looters were desecrating the ruins of our homes, our neighborhoods, our lives. They were on the same moral level as pedophiles and rapists.

For context, I am normally opposed to the death penalty even after due process and a fair trial. My priority at that time was not focused on “fairness” for a horribly desperate person taking advantage of a community thrust into an absolute tragedy. A reminder that collectively, we need to be better than our worst instincts. Our societal whole should always be greater than the sum of our parts.

Relatives OR Friends + Effort = Family.

Yes, I said it twice. Freely invest your energy and heart into decent humans. Hold them tight.

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