Close to Home: Thoughts on social etiquette with fire victims

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Even though it has been months since the fire, we victims are struggling and will be for a long time. The days go on, and we are feeling better but far from complete and, we are realizing, not ever again as I was. The hollow, sad, depthless dark feeling comes unsolicited, every day in the late afternoon, lingering, taking me back to that terrible night.

Folks must realize fire victims simply aren’t themselves, made evident by the things said that trigger us. There are things to say and not say to fire victims.

Don’t say you really should be grateful. There are other people who lost their homes who are far worse off than you.

Don’t say at least you have your life, which is the most important thing. It was just things that you lost.

Don’t say come over to my house, I have plenty of clothes you can look through. (Being in someone else’s house wasn’t anything I could do for months. And when someone tells you to come to them, they aren’t truly thinking about a fire victim’s situation, nor does it seem as though they want to, which is not at all helpful.)

Don’t say I know of someone who lost their house and then proceed to tell someone else’s story, which smacks of small talk and isn’t at all helpful to fire victims.

Don’t say I didn’t lose my house. I was lucky.

Don’t say there’s another way you can think about this — it’s a new beginning.

Don’t say it’s over (which pointedly suggests to the victim that it’s time for them to move on.)

Do say I’m coming over today, and I have several bags of clothes and other things for you. (A friend did this for me. I’ll never forget those five large bags of clothes she brought me. She didn’t give me a choice to make. She just did it for me.)

Do say I am here for you. I will always be here for you. You are in my heart.

Do say I cannot begin to imagine what you are going through.

Do say is there something I can get you? Do you need socks? Sweaters? (Be specific and give suggestions.)

Do say your pets didn’t suffer. The fire was too hot, and they died very quickly.

Do say take all the time you need to grieve. I am right here for you.

Do say there was nothing else you could do. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Knowing how to be with a fire victim is uncharted territory. When we who have lost so much can step away for a moment to be objective, we understand this. Also true is that some folks are just better at it, more intuitive, and know exactly how to speak to a victim, while others fall gravely short.

We aren’t interested in philosophies of those not affected on how to live through a disaster or how to pick up the pieces and move on. These insights are meaningless to us. We aren’t here to commiserate with a non-fire victim’s take on our aftermath. We don’t want to be told we are making progress, we just want you to say you are sorry for our loss. Believe it or not, this is the best thing you can do.

Just please say we are in your hearts, and that you’re so, so sorry. Then just be with us. Be quiet. Let the quietness between us heal us. This continues to be enough. The less you say, the more we heal. If we want to talk, let us, but make no judgments. You cannot fix us with your words, but your sweetness, grace and quietness gives us what we need. We will heal better if you would simply give us your hearts, your eyes, your hugs and your tears.

Susan Bernard and her husband, Ed Bernard, lost their home and a cat in the Tubbs fire. They live in Santa Rosa. She can be reached at

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