In time, almost everyone returns to the neighborhood, to gawk at the naked chimney stacks and scorched pools, and to hunt for artifacts of a former life -- their own, as it existed only days or weeks before. It’s the kind of scavenger hunt that drops some people to their knees, for it can bring to mind all that was lost -- the graduation rings, the photo albums, the kitchen magnets, the mirror frame that hung in the room where the family played hearts, watched “The Simpsons,” had Friday night popcorn and root beer.
“It’s something your mother doesn’t prepare you for: how to lose your history,” said Muffy Thorne, one of thousands of people who lost their houses in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991.
In recent decades, psychologists have had the opportunity to interview people who have lost their homes in California fires, in hurricanes along the Eastern Seaboard, in tornadoes through the Midwest. The monetary value of what’s destroyed is important, as are the means to rebuild; but studies suggest that the mental shock of losing a house -- and recovery from it -- have more to do with how well people understand what psychological support a home provides, and why.
“I think we forget that we’re all intensely physical beings, and after negotiating the same space year after year, the house itself, its nooks and crannies, becomes a part of who we are, our identity,” said Ellin Bloch, a psychologist at the California School of Professional Psychology in Alhambra. “We may go to one room to be with friends, another place to be alone. The physical architecture becomes embedded in us, and this tremendous feeling of disorientation comes from standing there and seeing only the sky -- and all the private spaces exposed, gone.”
The grieving over objects is hardly mere materialism, experts say. On the contrary, it is a healthy response to losing hard evidence of our own existence and history, and distracts attention from the disaster itself. In a 2002 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing interviewed 440 people in the Philadelphia area who had lost their houses in fires. A year after the tragedy, a quarter of the people were still highly distressed, they found.
“They tended to be people who were trying to come up with explanations for the fire, searching for answers to questions like, ‘Why me?’ ” said Arlene Houldin, associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s authors. “This kind of causal searching was highly associated with distress more than 13 months after the fire.”
Fires happen; neighbors come and go, children grow up and leave. Life’s trophies and class rings usually hang around forever, though, and one of the most natural responses to a devastating house fire is to find some items that themselves become mementos of life before the apocalypse. The Thornes were able to salvage their brass andirons from the fireplace. Across the street, Jane and Jim Moffatt used homemade strainers to sift through the ash and retrieve dog tags, a bronzed baby shoe and one silverware setting.
Merritt Schreiber of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, a disaster response center affiliated with UCLA, worked with the Red Cross during the Laguna Beach fires of 1993 and later studied how people coped. “The overwhelming desire was to find something to represent the continuity of their lives. One single item found in the rubble could be extremely meaningful.”
Child psychologists sometimes speak of a “transitional object,” the blanket or teddy bear that a young boy or girl wants to take to day care or preschool or even on a trip to the store. In a sense, psychologists say, adults also long for such objects to mentally take leave of one house and arrive in another. When all these items disappear at once in a fire, it can prompt a dissociation from one’s own life that is similar to what psychologists have found in refugees. “I saw a woman on TV yesterday who was very upset that she’d lost a picture of herself and her husband” in the fire, said Jane Moffatt, 63, the Thornes’ former neighbor. “I had to look away; she hasn’t begun to face the 150 million other things that are gone forever.”
Gone too are the easy chair where Mom read, the front stoop where Granddad smoked, the corner of the kitchen where you sipped wine and listened to the Laker games. These spots are not merely comfortable and familiar; they’re the exact and only places where individuals settle into their own company, or others’, after a day of work or school. They’re the site of daily reunions, crammed with lasting memories of everyday living, and their loss leaves people with a kind of existential dread, Bloch said, as if they had returned to their high school reunion and no one remembered them.
This is one reason why children, as terrified as they can be, often are quicker to recover from a devastating house fire than many adults. Less of their history has gone up in flames. In Schreiber’s study after the Laguna Beach fires, children and adolescents were about half as likely as adults to report symptoms such as sleep loss and concentration problems six months after the disaster. Russell T. Jones, a psychologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg who has made a career of studying response to home loss, said those hit hardest are the most vulnerable: solitary people without friends or family to help; the poor and uninsured; and individuals with a history of psychological problems, such as depression, whose sense of helplessness is confirmed by the disaster. “What some tell us is that this is the worst thing that ever happened to them, and they feel sure it’s going to happen again,” Jones said.
In a cultural sense, the loss of personal history is a blow Americans know how to handle: Self-reinvention is a national birthright. After any disaster, many people make changes that have long been in the works. Some divorce; others travel to Europe, move back to their hometown or change careers. But most people, however great their loss, throw themselves into the business of rebuilding from scratch -- a project that psychologists say almost always acts as a balm on the psychological wounds. “At some point people begin to reframe this story of loss into something positive,” said Bloch. “They say, ‘Now we can have a house with a kitchen I’ve always wanted,’ or ‘We’ve always talked about moving into a new neighborhood.’ ”
Philip Levine, 80, a retired businessman who lost his house in the Bel-Air fire of 1961, said he got a chill as he saw smoke rising from one of the recent blazes. But he also remembers the opportunity the long-ago fire gave him and his wife, Shirley. “We were still in the process of fixing things we didn’t like in that first house, and then -- just like that, it was gone,” he said. “We learned from our experience with the first house, and built a completely different house we like much better. How often do people get the opportunity to do something like that?”
As for the Moffatts, they moved to Orinda. But Jane is still occasionally overcome with emotion when talking about the Oakland house, still vividly remembers the mementos and pictures and valentine’s cards she lost. And she’s taking no chances with the one silverware setting she found in the ashes. It’s in a safety deposit box at her bank.