Sonoma County residents’ wildfire stories provide healing through humor
During the first week of the October wildfires, motivational speaker Paul Osincup, his wife and two dogs evacuated from their home off Brush Creek Road and found safe harbor with his sister in Bodega Bay.
Not long afterward, Osincup went to the Walmart in Rohnert Park in search of respirator masks, but the store was already sold out. He started to leave, then noticed a child pointing to the Halloween masks: “Look daddy, they DO have masks.”
“His father and I looked at each other, and we had a little chuckle,” Osincup recalled. “Just that brief moment was a good break,” he said. “Your brain can’t experience trauma and humor simultaneously.”
While working in higher education, Osincup used to do some improv comedy on the side. But in the past year, he has become a strong advocate for “laughter as the best medicine,” explaining in his talks how humor can help build resilience and provide distance from danger and fear without negating it.
Sometimes, he will even tell humorous stories that emerged from last year’s fires. It’s a touchy subject for many, with scars still deep, and wounds of loss reopened for many as wildfire season gets underway.
“The trauma of the wildfires requires a delicate balance,” he acknowledges, “but there is a lot of research that shows that humor does help us be resilient and gives us some power over what is happening,” he said. “Most good comedy comes from pain points in life … . When you can find humor and laugh together, it’s a signal that we’re going to be OK.”
With the healing power of a smile in mind, we reached out to those who suffered all kinds of loss and trauma in the fires and asked them how humor, however morbid, helped them cope during the darkest days. Not everyone approved of our inquiries, which were published in the paper for several days, some felt it was insensitive to the pain still being felt. But simultaneously, an overwhelming number of responses poured in from all kinds of folks, who had looked disaster in the face and still dared to have the last laugh.
“The humor post-fire is wry and dark, and shared best with fellow ‘victims,’ wrote Michelle Gillies, who lost her home in Larkfield Estates. “This is the kind of secret humor you might find among cops or firemen, when you just have to make fun of the hellish reality in front of you first, before IT gets you.“
Osincup has seen the dark side firsthand. As a positive workplace strategist, Osincup also coaches businesses on the ways humor can help employees become healthier - raising levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin - while improving performance at work. For therapists and emergency personnel who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the fires - either others’ or their own - he believes humor can be an essential coping mechanism.
“It prevents burnout (caused by where you work) and compassion fatigue (caused by the kind of work you do),” Osincup said. “It makes leaders seem more approachable and bridges social distance.”
As evidence, Osincup pointed to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which found that shared laughter can improve the quality of relationships, providing a sense of closeness and social support.
“Shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection,” said study co-author Sara Algoe in an article published in Greater Good Magazine. “It may have a lot of potential for helping people grease the wheels of their relationships in everyday life.”
Rather than wait around for humor to happen, Osincup has come up with ideas to help people consciously harness the healing power of humor. (see accompanying story, page D10)
Meanwhile, here are some of the stories (edited for space) that provided light amid the darkness, and a giggle amid the grind of rebuilding homes and lives.
“We were among the many in our community that lost our home in the fire, and once we had an opportunity to assess the loss, we walked around our property looking for things that might have been spared. We lived in a two-story home on a hillside in Wikiup … we had a chest freezer in our garage, and in the freezer was a frozen turkey. Because the garage slab was above ground, once the lower level collapsed, the slab gave way, causing things in the garage to be thrown downhill a bit.
“As I am sure all of us who lost our homes experienced, the loss and devastation was overwhelming. But as I made my way down the hill, I came across the chest freezer, on its side, with the top gone. Inside the freezer was that turkey, now fully cooked! The message was loud and clear: Turkey dinners represent Thanksgiving in our country, of course.