The fear, the sights, the smells, the bewildering feelings and confusion are things survivors of a natural disaster never forget. I know. I have an emotional bond with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina that extends back to Memorial Day, 1948. Fifty-seven years ago, when I was seven, my family survived the Vanport (Oregon) Flood. We were among the lucky ones who got out alive, and - like the Katrina survivors - once out of harms way, we faced the daunting prospect of starting life over with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. It is inappropriate to compare the magnitude of Katrina’s devastation with what happened in Vanport, but the haunting similarities have caused me to revisit a childlike anguish I thought the years had erased.
The knowledge of what it is like to be in a group, given shelter and food in a large room filled with rows of cots, makes every disaster survivor the same, while setting them apart from all others.
As a child, I was told to face the future and to put the tragedy we had just experienced behind me. I learned to be quiet and keep my feelings to myself. As a result, I stayed in this “survivor mode” for years. In the process, I lost my sense of “self” as I perfected the art of becoming whomever I needed to be in order to get by. A drama class in high school was my saving grace. The teacher in that class understood my need to rant, rave, laugh, scream and cry and to be okay with the deep feelings I had not been able to share. Best of all, in that safe environment, I received affirmations to tell my story and express my emotions.
The reason I am sharing this, is to let people know how important it is for survivors - particularly the children - to be encouraged to tell their stories. What has happened will be with them for as long as they live. How they process what they have experienced will determine how well they cope in the bewildering aftermath of their new life.
Those of us in the storytelling world understand the value of telling and listening, but in our fast-paced “what’s next” world, this part of the healing equation can be overlooked. For people who have experienced an emotional, physical and spiritual tragedy, a story can be a comfort or a catharsis. It is important, however, for storytellers to proceed here with caution. Most of us are not prepared to deal with the memories and emotions a survivor may experience after hearing a familiar folktale or a personal story. With the exception of offering tales to evoke belly laughs, we need to tread lightly when selecting stories to tell under these circumstances.
I believe we should collaborate first with health professionals in the community before we volunteer to take our programs to groups of Katrina survivors. To ensure the emotional safety of our listeners, we need to have trained psychologists and counselors in the audience. With health professionals available and ready to help as survivors tell their own stories, we will have set the stage to make a difference for those who need to be heard.
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