How to help someone who’s lost everything

This is a follow-up to my previous post from the perspective of the one who has lost a home and all possessions. I know many people right now are facing life without a home, without possessions, without mementos and precious heirlooms, without even a birth certificate anymore.

Here are a few tips on how to help these people facing the biggest life change anyone’s ever likely to face. Honestly. It was easier to put my father to rest than to figure out what to do after my mother lost her home.

Note: I get maybe a bit snarky toward the end when I talk about what not to do. Keep in mind this was an emotional deal for me, too, and cut me a tiny bit of slack if you can. I’m really not being ungrateful, and I’m just trying to help people understand maybe what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

For everyone:

The folks at the epicenter are not equipped at that moment to answer detailed questions, and anyway emergency officials have asked them everything—even horrible questions to find out if the person was responsible for her own world’s destruction. It’s awful. Please don’t add to that maelstrom of questions.

I know you want to help. If you aren’t in a place financially or geographically to spare a dollar or a pair of jeans, you can:

  • make phone calls to local aid groups
  • do some legwork for the victim. They’ll need paperwork re-issued (deeds, birth certificates, passports, titles, social security cards), so maybe you can start finding out at the library where they’ll need to start out
  • you can help start a relief fund for the victim or help set up a PayPal account for the same (this one gave me fits for two days). Spread the word liberally.
  • you can help get the word out that this person could use a hand. Maybe you’ll find someone who is in the position to give something to the victim.

For local folks:

This sweet note made it clear to use only what my family needed. They really REALLY appreciated that.

If the victims are still staring at the wreckage of their home, or sitting motionless on the cot at the shelter, get a pack of socks, underwear, and t-shirts for the person (or family). Put it into a simple bag for them with a bit of room to spare. My brother received a duffle bag with those things inside (from someone afar, actually!), with the note you see here. It was the best.

If there are children, a small stuffed animal may offer amazing comfort to them. (This is out of my experience, though, so most of my tips are applicable only to adult victims.) A bottle of water and a piece of fruit or can also be nice. My mom was really happy to have pajamas to sleep in that night, and a pillow like she lost. It’s the little things.

Red Cross should already be there (the fire dept is supposed to call them), but in our case, the FD had a few unusual things going on (running out of water, for one), so if RC doesn’t show up soon, call em up. It won’t hurt if you end up calling them and they already know. They’ll deal.

Offer your phone for the victims or someone close to them to use to call family or the insurance company.

If there are pets involved, find out their names and go looking for them around the neighborhood. Seriously, you’re helping more by getting out of the immediate area. And what an amazing turnaround for my mom when she found one of her cats.

Red Cross should get them a place for a day or two to stay. Try to help find or even negotiate a middle-term housing situation for them. In our case, that is a travel trailer. In others cases it might be an apartment or other rental, housesitting (yes, really), or the ol’ spare bedroom.

If this was just wear, of course it’d be fine. But it’s not. That brown stuff is grime. Not stains: dirt and grime that rubs off when you get near it. Don’t do this.

Don’t take it personally if they don’t stay in the place you find for them. Just giving them an option is a huge relief for them. Mostly. Don’t try to force them into the “easiest” option or the closest option. Don’t put them into a place you wouldn’t want to spend the night, yourself.

Which brings me to this tip: OMG, don’t give them anything you wouldn’t want to receive yourself. They don’t have anything, sure, and they’re grateful, but they still have dignity. Don’t give them rags to wear. Don’t give them the couch from the porch, the rugs the cats peed on, or a place to stay that would make a crackhead uncomfortable. Seriously. My mom was gracious and we, her family, tried to be, too. We all love second-hand and thrift stores, but there’s no way some of these items would’ve made the cut at Goodwill. Again, just because they’ve lost everything doesn’t mean they’ll take anything. Imagine staring at strange walls and facing the thought of sleeping on questionable, stained sheets, and eating expired food. Imagine if that’s what your new reality becomes.

Remember that time three years before your house burned down? Yeah, even then this pudding was expired. But those were good times, huh?

Don’t make this the moment you take out the trash. And for the love of Pete, don’t donate expired food. Ever.

Pee stains, anyone?

Mom was grateful for the clothing she got from neighbors and friends: the clothing that was folded and stacked on her car’s hood as it sat on the road; the clothing that was hung in the closet of the room my friends put together for her, and hung up or folded in the donation center the neighbors put together. The clothes in the trash bag? Not as excited to pick through and find the best-of items so clearly stamped as throw-away. And seriously, she loves Goodwill. It wasn’t a matter of “good enough” or “nice enough.” It was all about just taking a few moments to show that the items you are giving them were good enough to take a moment to fold, stack, or anything other than “unceremoniously dump”.

For out-of-towners:

My brother—also displaced by the fire—got an overnight package in the mail with some clothes and a duffle bag, as I mentioned. This was so awesome and discreet. He appreciated the gesture and its method. Better still (the note is one of the photos above), the sender acknowledged that my brother might not want or need some of the things in the bag. They gave him the sensitive “out” to use only what he could or would use. I don’t know who those friends of his were, but THANK YOU, friends. You have no idea what a relief that was for him to know it was ok.

Setting up and arranging the PayPal thing, and spreading the word on contributing to it, is a big help. Folks on both coasts are eager to contribute, which is amazing, as are folks in between and in other countries. It’s just amazing. One friend from the past is arranging her group of crafters to donate just $5 each to the fund. It’s just the sweetest thing.

My mom has no idea what she’ll do next, so item donations aren’t an easy possibility. Does she need a new table or bed? She didn’t have a place to put it, and ended up finding a “home” that came with built in beds and tables. Does she need a coat for winter? In Texas, that’s a question for next-month mom. She’s not in contact with today-mom. They’re not on speaking terms just yet.

Sorry, out-of-towners. There’s less that you can do, but not nothing. Even if you can’t do financial or physical contributions, I hope the list of “legwork” items (above) that you can do from afar can help you feel involved.

My aunts and uncles were able to travel into town to help out for a few days, and it really was great to have them near. My brother and I were able to return to work more quickly than without them, and having my mom’s “peers” around was much better than her feeling like her children were taking care of her.

Today she’s watching the bulldozers remove the wreckage of her hand-built home. Today I’m back at work, but before I could dive into writing as part of my job, I had to get this writing out of the wreckage of my own thoughts. I hope you’ll forgive its state, and I do sincerely hope it helps you—anyone and everyone—to understand how to help.

It’s not you, it’s me: your perineal cleanser might be a kingly gift, but if the recipient doesn’t need a half-used bottle of it, maybe don’t take that the wrong way.

One final thought: don’t take it personally if your gift or suggestion if not accepted. I am finding it a good change of events to have mom forming her own opinions again. The first few days she was unable to make decisions at all, ate when she was told, went where we pointed, and in all ways was mastered by the situation. Today she is mastering it, and the help she still needs is ever more difficult for her to accept. I hope I keep that in perspective and understand that she’s finding what she most lost: her fierce independence.

Thank you, one and all, for helping her get there again. But maybe not so much thanks for the expired pudding.


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