Finding Normal When Your Entire World is Gone

Over the past few days, I have watched the tragedies unfolding in Texas due to Hurricane Harvey with trepidation, anxiousness, and empathy. I look into the terrified and traumatized faces of families seeking shelter and it brings me to tears because I know their feelings all too well. My family is from New Orleans. My mother, first cousin, her three kids, and I all evacuated to Texarkana, Texas during Hurricane Katrina. My aunt, uncle, and brother all remained in New Orleans to ride out the storm. My brother, who is in law enforcement, was inside the Superdome. My aunt and uncle were at home. We didn’t have any contact with them for days. We didn’t know if they were dead or alive. Eventually we learned that my uncle used his boat to rescue neighbors trapped in their homes and got them to higher ground. He was a hero. I didn’t know these stories about him until his funeral a year after the storm when many people gathered to pay their respects to the man who saved them. Eventually, we  began to reorganize our lives in Texas while trying to rebuild at home. We had to find normal. Therefore, when I look at my brothers and sisters in Texas, I understand deeply what they are going through.

It’s okay to cry.

You have the right to cry as much and as long as you want. No one has the right to tell you how to feel or even to feel better. This is a trauma that will forever be a part of the story of your life. If you have to cry, cry. Do not deny your emotions. Let them be what they are and express them. Talk to people. Many will reach out to you now. Let the people who love you hold you and cry on their shoulder. It’s okay.

Allow yourself to be overwhelmed by kindness.

You will not believe the people who want to help you. You will not believe the strangers who want to give you hugs or buy you a simple cup of coffee or provide you with clothes or shelter. Sometimes it’s not strangers. In my case, my college classmates were lifesavers during our time of need. They provided hotel room nights for my family. They sent clothes and toys for my nieces and nephew. They sent us gift cards to purchase necessities. And, they sent me the nicest letters of encouragement to keep me going. Eventually, my tears shifted from those of loss and trauma, to those of overwhelming gratitude at how much love I felt rushing in my direction. Allow yourself to be filled with love. Allow yourself to let people look into your eyes and tell you they care. When the world is upside down, and you have no idea what will happen next, rely on the fact that love is real and you deserve it.

You will want to feel normal.

Eventually, you will get tired of people. You will long for your own space and your own things and the little things that used to bring you joy. You will not want to talk about the storm or the armchair quarterbacks of woulda-coulda-shoulda. You will want to watch a little tv or read a book or go to a restaurant and just be NORMAL. The kind eyes of strangers will get annoying. You will know they mean well and you will still be appreciative of them, but you will tire of being a charity case because your normal is to take care of yourself. My advice is as soon as you can, treat yourself to something that reminds you of who you are. If you can steal a private moment to flip through a magazine or if you can have a coffee from Starbucks or find a good friend to share a much needed laugh with. Do that and do it without guilt. Self-care is real and you must practice it to preserve your sanity.

You will feel pain for a long time.

There will always be reminders of what used to be. Some places will never reopen unfortunately. Their absence will always remind you of the storm. When it rains, you will think of the storm. You will always think of your home in terms of storing things just in case there is a storm. When it rains just a little too long, you will wonder if it will flood. Watching weather reports will bring you anxiety.  You will always remember little things you lost in the storm and their sentimental value will grow exponentially over time. You will be sad about photos and heirlooms you have lost. People, like me, will tell you that you will be okay and you won’t know how to believe them.

It is okay to feel anger.

When you hear the inevitable hindsight of commentators or the people who criticize why residents didn’t evacuate or you begin to hear that people are tired of helping or that it’s time to move on, you will feel angry and hurt. You will feel that people don’t care about your pain anymore and that will bring you more pain. You will want to scream that people are still suffering and you will feel like no one is listening. You will watch the news and feel anger at politicians and pundits who just don’t seem to grasp the enormity of your pain. Those feelings are natural. Let them bubble up and come out and let them go. Don’t allow your anger to transform into bitterness.

Your dignity is intact.

It is natural to believe that we can and should do things alone. No one wants to feel like a charity case. However, accepting help and acknowledging that you need help does not dismantle your dignity. You can have your head high and still receive assistance. No one is expecting you to be the pillar of strength. Don’t let pride block your blessings.

You will rebuild and move on.

Eventually, the water will recede. Businesses will reopen. Kids will go back to school. Folks will start complaining about traffic again. It will happen. Some folks will rebuild faster than others. That is okay. This is not a competition. Moving on for you may entail completely changing your life. It may mean moving to a new area or finding a new job or new career. It may be, like it was for me, an impetus to follow your dreams and start something brand new of your own. But life, like time, will move on. Nothing that made you who you were before the storm washed away in it. You are still the same person. You are still strong and intelligent and worthy. Everything inside of you is still there. It is hard right now to imagine the future but you have all the tools you need inside of you to persevere. It will not be easy.For some, it will be the most difficult experience of your lives, especially the children. Eventually though, it will pass. Normal will never look exactly like it did before. It can’t. But you can make a new normal.

My heart, my prayers, and my fundraising abilities go out to my brothers and sisters of Texas. You all opened your homes and hearts to us during Katrina and we will do the same for you. It is my hope that these words bring you a small bit of comfort, though I’m clear right now it is difficult to see beyond getting basic needs met. Trust me, I understand. You are loved. You are not forgotten.


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