Friday, September 16, 2005

Katrina Obsessed: Helping After the 2-week News Cycle is Over

Well, it's been two weeks now, since Hurricane Katrina decimated a wide swath of the gulf-coast reagion, so I'm guessing everyone feels fatigued about the whole story. Two weeks seems to be the average American's attention span in all things newsworthy.

While I'm weary, too, of pundits pontificating like pompous windbags, my fatigue seems rather superficial compared to those who are just coming out of the ether and trying to decide what to do with what little is left of their lives.

Having gone through a couple major ordeals in my short life, I found that people possess very little patience for the grieved and brokenhearted. While we are a nation of "get over it already", we rarely can get over it fast enough for everyone's comfort: most of the time because we are dealing with difficulty day-to-day that people can't comprehend. They want you to be over it because they don't want to deal with the difficulty of looking at your sad face.

For example, four years after my premature son was born, it still yook an hour to feed him. About four hours of my day was spent in a chair facing a resistent little toot. He simply did not want to eat. I won't tell you how long it took to potty train him. And all sorts of parents with challenged children deal with wheelchairs, feeding tubes, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, voice therapists, etc. Except for the feeding tubes and wheelchairs, my son still has all these helpers--it is eight years after the storm.

Most people going through a long-term storm, like those who will deal with post-Katrina rebuilding, don't usually complain as much as you think they would. In fact, reporters have been shocked at survivors attitudes post-Katrina. 90% have strengthened faith inGod? How could this be?

They have perspective, that's how. Now some will descend into bitterness and I've seen that, too. But most will quit belly-aching over their little problems and show lots of gratitude for mundane things like love and life and friendship and the beauty and power of God's creation--the last seeming more than alittle ironic. Yes that creation can be great and terrible--but the humbling reminds us of our mortality and relative insignificance.

We can hold onto our arrogance, but that just makes us look like fools.

So the survivors will amaze and inspire with their fortitude. Everyone will wonder, "how do they do it?" They just do. Because they have to. People will say, "I could never do that." You've never had to, so you can't know what you would do if you had to. Let's hope you're never tested that way.

Long term, after the winds and rains and debris are picked up, people will still be needing help. 150,000 people in Houston, Texas alone. Maybe more.

The news will stop covering the mess and rebuilding. I just read an article about Sonia Kashuk (the Target make-up maven) just moving into her apartment four years later after it was blown to smitherines on 9/11. Four years later! It passed like a blink in one way, but for her, she made decisions every day, lived somewhere else, lost all her possessions save a few pictures, and rebuilt a life.

When we had our trial eight years ago, we, too had nothing. No insurance. No money. I take that back: we did have this one possession thousands of dollars in college debt.

Platitudes didn't help us. Between feeding and medicine and oxygen and tiny baby in huge car seat, we didn't get out much at all. Food needed to be bought and made. The house needed cleaning. But most people wanted to come and hold the baby. That didn't help. In fact, it was upsetting, because even a small virus sent him back to the hospital for months. The parting words of the neonatologist, "You'll be back in the NICU an average of three times by the time he is one. Expect it." Visitors terrified me--the baby caught (and until last year, still did) everything.

In contrast, the church where I grew up sent us $5000. That $5000 helped us in so many ways. It helped buy the car to take the baby to the doctor's appointments in town. It helped buy a nice crib. It helped us pay for parking at the hospital (at around $300/month). It helped buy food. It helped pay for doctors appointments. (We just barely didn't qualify for government aid. For my son's first year of life he was uninsured. Can you believe that?)

Long story short: people want to help but don't know how. Asking the person in the crisis is useless. They are simply surviving.

Here's a list of ways to help:
  1. Buy groceries, deliver it and leave it at the door.
  2. Call ahead and say, "I'm coming over to clean your bathrooms. I'll be there at 3. Is that okay?" Then clean them and leave.
  3. Get lawn service or maid service for the people.
  4. Keep hospital and home visits short. People are tired.
  5. Bring magazines in interests they like.
  6. Make sure they have internet access at home or in hospital--they need information.
  7. Make sure they have communication--cell phones help. We didn't have them and had to rely on nurses giving us messages. The hospital gave us pagers but when those went off we knew it was really bad.
  8. Don't be a miserable mess when you visit. You blubbering doesn't help.
  9. Don't pretend it isn't happening, either. Hugs and "This sucks and I'm praying for you" statements help more than you'll know.
  10. Talk about your life, people want to know--but keep complaints to a minimum. I had a hard time listening to a friend with a new baby complain about crying jags, when I was absolutely buried with stuff.
  11. Laugh. At the right time. Tread carefully, but I wanted to laugh more than you would think.
Now, this is based on my experience, and I'm guessing the New Orleans evacuees will need other things. But concrete things help. Words are words and more than useless.

The good samaritan, helped his "enemy" to safety, paid for his healthcare and food and visited to see his progress. Nothing glamorous. Nothing in it for him. The prayers of the Rabbi did nothing to help. In fact, the scripture that says, "to see good and to not do it, is a sin."

I'm ashamed to admit this, but before my own trials, I gave little thought to the troubles of strangers. Good friends who I knew, I did my best to help. But so much of my help, when troubles hit, came from anonymous strangers: the Catholic priest who prayed over my son every day, the Christian couple who took my hands and prayed for me in the waiting room at the hospital when I was clearly bereft and distraught, the book sent by a woman who had also experienced a premature birth, the nurses who bought baby clothes and toys, the people who sent flowers to cheer me, the people who sent me money, the people who wrote encouraging letters, the people who left messages on my machine to say they loved me.

How do you adequately thank people for their generosity and kindness? It's impossible. But I'll say it again anyway for those of you out there who were there for me: thank you.

Our world is filled with loving, giving people. Sometimes these people pause when they want to help because the help may be imperfect. Well, a bumpy ride on a donkey that leads one back to safety and health, may not be ideal but it can be life-saving.

So the two-weeks news cycle has come around. Reporters are bored. The Judge Roberts confirmation and the blow-hard Senators now take center stage. But the need for the NOLA evacuees has just begun. It will take years for them to get their lives back and no one can do it for them. But a little help along the way and remembering, too, can make all the difference to people recovering from devastation.
More blogs about the woodlands rita.