How do you deal with loss? Platitudes, resignation, anger, acceptance? A philosophical search for meaning — albeit a search that has been foisted upon you? I mean, what if you were fine, not searching, just living? Until a capricious set of circumstances converged into disaster.
I’m at the benefit concert at The Granada for the Tea Fire victims and the firefighters who battled the inferno, a generous act of grace provided by the Santa Barbara Symphony. Around me, loss is palpable as several of us shed tears. It turns out I’m grieving, too. The loss of our 9-year old dog, suddenly and fatally gone. And I can easily recall my parents’ grief when they lost their home in the 1990 Painted Cave Fire. My stepfather (out of the country when the fire happened) asked my stepbrother to find a gold watch on his closet shelf. A gift from my mother. “Dad,” my stepbrother said, “there is no closet, there is no shelf.”
Later my mother holds contorted silver frames that held our baby pictures. Beneath the charring you can still read each name, birthdate and weight. But the pictures are long gone, vaporized like decades of memories my mother must let go of now. Our childhoods, preserved so carefully in photographs, have vanished in a few fiery seconds.
This past July my husband and I almost lost our home in the Gap Fire. Our family knows about fires. We know way too much about fires. On the worst night of the Gap siege there were about 25 engines staged in front of our driveway.
It happens so fast. That’s the thing that always gets you. Nov. 13: It’s a balmy night and the moon is full and you’re considering that bottle of chardonnay. Then everything changes. Seventy-mile-an-hour winds, tinder dry chaparral, sundowner conditions. A recipe for disaster. Add in a careless bonfire — make that a colossal act of stupid negligence — and 230 homes burn.
In my case the dead dog is a reminder that tragedy happens randomly. If only we’d known. If only we’d done something differently. We still don’t know what killed our dog, poison mushrooms, a poisoned rat — or worse — a malicious act.
So I sit in the audience and some of us are in tears, Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” a catharsis in the dark of the theater. And I learn something about loss. I realize grief is a delayed reaction. Shock and adrenaline get you through the first days, then comes the bargaining. If only I’d known, if only I’d done something differently. In the end it all comes out the same. To a loss that can’t be denied.
Loss. Then grief.
So how do you deal with loss and grief? Probably a little bit each day, as something reminds you of something and the tears come midstream. And each day there’s a new appreciation for the things you still do have: family, friends, connections, beloved pets. You realize love is the only thing you really take with you anyway.
Then you take control because it’s good to have control of something: meeting with the contractor, the architect, various government agencies, the insurance adjuster. Or like me, meeting with the mycologist at SBCC who teaches me mushroom identification. You want to control something — because in the end you know you really can’t. Not always. Not definitively. And that’s what’s really scary.
Nature humbles us all in the land of wildfires. My parents lost their house; we almost lost ours this summer. Now hundreds of families have lost their homes. And no platitude is going to change that. But when you reach through grief to the joy in a memory you learn something about redemption. It will be a bittersweet Thanksgiving. We’ll give thanks — at my parents’ rebuilt house — for what we still have. We’ll give thanks for what we’ve had, too.
In the meantime there will be tears and you should probably let them fall.
Laura Hout is a freelance writer and Realtor affiliated with Prudential California Realty.