This weekend, Hurricane Harvey ripped through Texas, leaving an estimated 30,000 people seeking emergency shelter, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Yesterday, the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center tweeted that the "breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before," and that the "catastrophic flooding" is expected to last days. At the time of publishing, 10 lives have been lost, and countless others have lost their homes and most of their possessions, according to the New York Times.
In the midst of a natural disaster, it can be difficult to grasp exactly what you can do to help. If you do have friends or family who have been directly impacted, it's tough to find the right words to express that you sympathize with what they're going through.
"There are so few things that you can actually say, and of course the person who is traumatized knows that," says Nora Baladerian, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who headed three trauma teams in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. That said, providing emotional support for someone during a time like this can be incredibly valuable. If you're not sure how to do that, ahead are a few suggestions from Dr. Baladerian for how to be there for those you care about who have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey or any natural disaster:
Listen and reflect.
The best thing you can say to someone after a devastating loss from a natural disaster is that you're so sorry, and you want to do everything you can to stick with them, Dr. Baladerian says. Otherwise, your job as a supportive friend is just to listen and validate their feelings. It can be helpful to repeat the same words that they use when describing their situation, she says. For example, if someone tells you that they're terrified, you might say, It's a terrifying situation, of course you feel terrified, she suggests. "Using their own words makes that person feel really heard," she says.
Let them mourn their loss.
Your first instinct might be to jump in and say, At least it's only a house, or, In a few years, you'll have a whole new house, to make someone feel better. But in the early stages after a natural disaster, a person will still be mourning the loss of their house, family member, heirlooms, or pets, or whatever it is that they parted with, Dr. Baladerian says. Instead, it can be reassuring to say to someone, I'm going to be with you until you have your house back, or, We'll find our way together. Acknowledging how horrifying someone's pain or loss must have been is often more comforting than trying to paint a pretty picture of what their life will look like once they've recovered, she says.
Help them focus on gratitude.
Find a few facts to be grateful for, Dr. Baladerian says. "Do a little list of appreciation and acknowledge what's good or what they can be grateful for," she says. For many people, they're simply happy to be alive, in which case you should focus on that. "You want to kind of balance listening, being present, and noticing what's good," she says.
Don't underestimate long-distance support.
In some instances after a natural disaster, people might not feel comfortable reaching out to their local friends and family for assistance, because they know they're also going through the same loss, Dr. Baladerian says. "They might feel helpless as well, because they've been in a similar situation or are in an identical one." Even if you aren't anywhere near Texas, it's worth it to post on Facebook to see if you can help anyone from afar. You might be surprised who responds, and your support and long-distance assistance can be instrumental, she says.
Understand that their feelings will fluctuate.
After a natural disaser, it's not uncommon for people to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), Dr. Baladerian says. "There is a series of different phases that people in this immediate trauma response go through, and it ends with understanding, acknowledgement, and acceptance," she says. However, they might experience a different stage on a daily basis, so be prepared for whatever it is that they're feeling. "Knowing that these are normal stages and responses is the important thing," she says. And keep in mind that they might not "get over" their loss right away, and it can be a long time before their lives are back to normal. Be patient and willing to listen or help throughout the recovery process.