Last Summer’s bushfire season left a toll on many people, especially those working in the wildlife volunteer community.

Dr Rob Gordon, a psychologist and also a bushfire survivor, has been working in the field of post disaster recovery for near on 40 years. Two Green Threads has drawn on Dr Gordon’s guidance offered in the context of the the Black Saturday bushfire affected communities, as we start a future of anniversaries of the 2019/20 Black Summer fires.

Agency means the ability to take action or to choose to take action. These words are offered as a means to inspire and support self agency as we acknowledge the first anniversary of the Black Summer fires. Dr Gordon’s words remind us that the path for recovery for each of us is unique and that our sense making can take time.

1 year on

Understanding and acceptance

  • The most important thing in successful recovery is acceptance that the disaster happened. It is hard to accept something so difficult, and it happens only gradually and painfully. It is helped by recognising how complicated disaster is, and how many influences combined to make it happen.
  • Everyone affected has to make sense of it in their own way. This takes years, but it is central to a good recovery. Making sense means weaving the experience into the pattern of a new, worthwhile future. One of the ways we make sense of experiences is to share them with others, to tell the story of what happened and how it affected us. In this way, we combine the emotions with the narrative of the event, enabling us to give those emotions a ‘home’, rather than being unattached and getting triggered by seemingly unrelated events.
  • Recovery isn’t simple. Recovery can be disrupted by looking for simple answers to complicated questions, simple reasons for complicated events. Research into recovering from disasters shows people who resolve pain into anger, and helplessness into blame, find it harder to move on and regain happiness, than those who focus on accepting it has happened and building a new future.
  • One of the ways to support your recovery is to limit exposure to debates and information. Don’t go over the same issues when there is nothing new. Think about what is important to you and focus on that. Avoid images of the early events if you don’t need to see them again.
  • Try not to rush to blame and judgement; give yourself and others time to digest it all and see the whole. The big picture is the most realistic because it is the most complete, but it is also the hardest to understand.

2 years on

Realisation, reflection and redefining purpose

  • Anniversaries are both painful and reassuring. They are reassuring in that they give the feeling of surviving, time passing and getting further away from the tragic event, but they are painful because they represent another year of separation. The second year is often when things begin to settle and the extent of the loss becomes clear. There is more chance to feel deep sadness, and the sense of life being less than it was before. It is often a time when memories and results of the loss come up to change the meaning of everything. It is a time of realising the full extent of what the loss means.
  • The second anniversary may be a quieter, more reflective time. It is a different layer to the first anniversary and touches questions like: “Who am I now that this has happened? How can I ever find a way back to a fulfilling life?” These questions are lost in the first year amongst the struggle to keep daily life going.
  • These thoughts and feelings eventually allow a new life to form out of the old one, and can mane that a place is found for those who are lost within it. Most people eventually form a new life after loss, but only after they have been through the slow cycle that takes them to the pain of the loss, then on to rebuilding a life, and then back to the pain again. It is not something achieved quickly.
  • We have to look at what we are feeling, instead of how we are feeling, if we are to see that there is a gradual healing going on.
  • On the second year anniversary, try to find a form for the day that expresses your own feelings and needs. Think about who you want to be with, what you want to do and where you want to be. Ask those who want to support you what you need them to do, so that you can have this time the way you want it. Think about what will make it meaningful.

3 years on

Working through the effects of disrupted life

  • For most people stress is reduced by year three and life becomes more stable as new routines develop. The past two years are looked back on as a blur of constant activity, maintaining the necessities of personal and family existence. It seems at this point that there is time to go beyond coping, to stop, take stock, think and remember. There is a long way to go to recover from some of the indirect effects of the fires. It can take communities up to seven years to fully recover from the financial consequences of disasters.
  • At this point it is good to acknowledge that recovery takes up a lot of time and resources, and this means that inevitably many areas of life are neglected or ignored. These include wider social contacts, interests, recreational activities, personal projects and commitments, which allow us to express ourselves, enrich our lives and give depth and variety to our existence.
  • There is a common pattern that while stress is high, the body generates stress chemicals to keep us functioning. Only when we can finally rest, and the body comes out of stress does the cost come home to roost. People often have health crises in the period following a prolonged stress episode. By being aware of this investing in yourself and your recovery can prevent and ameliorate physical problems. This is important because accepting emotional and personal recovery can only happen after physical recovery.
  • We have a tendency to blame ourselves for things going wrong. We can, at this stage in our recovery, however, assume that any unusual change in ourselves or those we love is related to the fire experience, and so it is a good idea to try to work out what the connection is. This helps not to take it personally and to find common ground. Problems are often presented on the basis of everyday hassles, when in fact they are about bigger things

4 years on

Recovering from recovery and reflection

  • Depleted reserves do not cause normal tiredness that rebounds after a rest, but a deep exhaustion that often feels worse after resting for a time. Sometimes we can push this exhaustion aside by being active, however this masks the need for rest, and it should be respected if we are not to pay for it later.
  • Many people eventually look back on bad experiences as helping them to be wiser, more compassionate and understanding, and sometimes event changing their lives for the better. Post-traumatic growth is possible for everyone, but it only happens by continuing to take good care of yourself and those important to you. It takes time in working over what has happened. Wisdom cannot be rushed.

The reflections may end here but that’s not because recovery is usually over at some magical four year mark. The reflections to this point emphasise the message that recovery is unique for every person, and its timeframe can’t be categorised into a capped number of years.

Content Acknowledgement:

This page contains material drawn from from Dr. Rob Gordon’s work with Black Saturday communities, made public on the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB) website at: Resources for Those Affected by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires. The content has been republished with the permission of Dr. Gordon.

With grateful acknowledgment to the following supporters for enabling this resource.

This is part of the Wildlife Heroes Caring for Carers Campaign
supported by the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife and the Australian Government.

Thanks also to our supportive partner The International Fund for Animal Welfare.