Not long after Hurricane Harvey made landfall last month as a Category 4 hurricane, caregivers throughout the Houston-area were reaching out to support others in need – even when many of their own homes were flooded. Esalen faculty David Kessler, an expert in grief and healing, went to Texas to assist a number of these caregivers. What he experienced, including a stranger delivering pizza, surprised even him.
eNews: What brought you to Houston?
David: I work with a national hospice organization, Compassus, and they asked me to assist their Houston office. When I met with these nurses and social workers and asked how they were doing, they would reply, “Oh I’m fine.” So I would ask them, “Tell me what the storm was like for you?” And they would tell me they were calling patients from their closets.
Many were sheltering in closets because of the tornados created by the storm. I also went to nursing homes and learned caregivers had been sleeping on the floor next to their patients. They hadn’t been home for days. In fact, many of them knew they if they went to work before the storm they wouldn’t be going home soon.
eNews: What makes caregivers different?
David: They have amazing dedication. One social worker said to me that once the storm had passed, she turned to her husband – they were both in the closet – and said, “You’re safe, my baby is safe, and I need to check on my patients.” And the moment she could go out, she did. We forget how dedicated caregivers are in the world. I never heard one caregiver say they weren’t going to work.
eNews: How do we support others in the face of devastating loss?
David: I grew up on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and when I was nine my home was destroyed by Hurricane Camille. I personally knew what many in the areas hit by Hurricane Harvey had been through. And so what can we do in these times? We can say: I am here to walk with you. And literally there is a picture of me walking with a nurse to go see her house which was under water. I always see part of my job as being a companion and witnessing people’s pain. We all need our grief witnessed.
eNews: Why is that important?
David: I think some of it is primal that we don’t understand. Grief and pain have to be witnessed. We weren’t meant to be islands of grief. I think it’s also a primal thing that we heal as a tribe. If you stay isolated, and I stay isolated, and no one has felt my pain, and I don’t understand your pain, we don’t heal as well. My grief can be completely unique, and I’m not the only one who has grieved.
eNews: How can caregivers, and all of us, help ourselves after an experience of loss?
David: Elisabeth Kübler Ross, my mentor and coauthor, identified the first stage of grief as shock and denial. There is a feeling that this can’t be happening to me. Whether you’ve just survived a hurricane or a loved one dies, you are in survival mode. Once you’re out of survival mode that is when the feelings are going to come. We often judge those feelings as wrong and wonder why once we are fine those emotions are hitting now. And it is because now you’re strong enough to handle them.
We have a saying about disasters that just because the fire truck leaves doesn’t mean the disaster is over. This is just as true for an individual who has suffered the loss of a loved one. Once the funeral has passed and all the arrangements have been made, there’s a somber silence that brings feelings that need to be dealt with.
It’s important to know that these feelings are not going to gang up on you. Many of us become overwhelmed with the perception that if we start to cry it’s never going to end. What is important to realize is that you will feel one feeling and once you allow it to pass then the next feeling is going to come. It’s one feeling at a time. One might be sadness, and one might be anger. It’s going to be that simple.
eNews: What do you remember most about your time in Houston?
David: Here’s what I learned in one moment walking in three-feet-deep water in a neighborhood that was just devastated by the storm. I saw a man pull up in his truck, take out 12 pizza boxes and start to go house to house handing out these pizzas. I said to him, “Do you live in this area?” He said no but that he felt helpless and he wanted to do something.
So often things go wrong in the world and we feel so helpless. We don’t know what organization to give to or how to be of support. And usually there is a tragedy near you already. What simple act can you do? This man inspired me so much. His work embodied the idea that we can all be of service.
David will be teaching Releasing Pain, Healing Grief and Remembering with Love at Esalen the weekend of December 8-10, 2017. Register now.