The Adelaide Bush Fires – Coping with Trauma and Loss

In the wake of the recent devastating bush fires in the Adelaide Hills, having experienced past bush fires myself, as well as being partner to a Captain in the CFS and an Adelaide Hills resident, I have taken some time to reflect upon my experience and hope that this can help others.

Though I was unaffected this time, having experienced the fear and uncertainty when an out of control bush fire started at the end of my street last year and burned towards my nanna’s property over the hill, hearing of the catastrophic conditions, the intensity of the fire, and the news that some of my dearest friends were having to evacuate from these January bush fires, I experienced similar physical sensations to those felt when fires were threatening my home and my family last year. Heightening this response was the knowledge that my partner in the CFS had come home from the fires last year with burns to his face, and the fact that he and his brigade were taking the overnight shift and I would not have contact with him for 15 hours or more.

The thoughts and feelings that arose for me, though I was not in immediate danger, are a good example of how the trauma of a natural disaster can affect us and recur when similar events are experienced. For some, this leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and for others it simply presents as uncomfortable feelings such as the ones I experienced despite the knowledge that I and my immediate family and loved ones were going to be safe for the most part. Re-experiencing this trauma or discomfort can occur when we return to our homes and try to get on with our lives after a devastation such as this….so how do we rebuild our lives both practically and emotionally in the wake of this natural disaster?

Returning Home

Returning home may fill one with a myriad of conflicting thoughts and feelings. There may be a sense of comfort in returning to the place you feel you belong, a sense of fear or uncertainty, of appreciation that your home was saved, but guilt or sadness that your neighbour’s house wasn’ta sense of overwhelming helplessness or hopelessness about the loss of stock, pets or the land you made your livelihood from…could we have been better prepared, or the opposite, you may experience determination and motivation to ‘not let this beat me/us’ and to rebuild what was taken…..

It is important to anticipate and prepare ourselves not only for the experience that the day of returning may evoke for us, but also for living in the aftermath of devastation….particularly when with a bushfire, there is such a vivid and vicious visual reminder of the event. This can be incredibly emotionally tolling.

Prepare for and anticipate the following:

– What will it be like returning home through the roads and properties that were affected by the fire?

– How might I feel seeing our house or property for the first time, and in the state we left it when we fled?

– Who will I really need as support when confronting this?

– If you’re one of these who’s homes was destroyed… will I feel entering what is left of my home or livelihood, and sorting through the debris?

– With spot fires still burning from time to time and CFS investigations continuing…how will I cope with the smell of smoke in the air that may occur, with the sound of the sirens, with an unexpected hot gust of wind like those that occur at a fire front, or with the sighting of emergency services personnel or vehicles?

– what will it be like considering the reality of what it will take physically, financially and emotionally to rebuild my home and livelihood?

(Though these suggestions only address a very small number of the experiences you may need to consider, they give a guide and an insight into the sorts of circumstances, big or small, that may cause distress or alarm. Please feel free to modify these or identify other factors that suit your own circumstances).

When anticipating these scenarios, these feelings or these thoughts, the next step is to identify their meaning and the driving force being the statement……Is this a thought that is generated by fear, is it generated by motivation, is it a thought that links with some anxiety or grief?

Where in my body can I sense this?

It may be your stomach, tight or fluttery; it may be tension in your teeth and jaw, or across the shoulder, your chest may feel tight or constricted, maybe some shortness of breath, or there may be a sensation of heat somewhere in your body, maybe in your hands, your legs, or your heart?

Once we can recognise the meaning and the presentation of these experiences in our body, we can begin to manage the intensity of the reaction we feel when these occur, both physically and mentally/emotionally.

By anticipating our physical and emotional responses to the situation, we can be prepared to experience these and not be caught off guard.

One way of working through these responses when feeling overwhelmed is to use Mindfulness.

Mindfulness exercises focus on bringing one’s attention to the here and now, not getting caught up in thinking about the past, thinking about the future, decreasing attention directed at uncomfortable feelings throughout the body, letting go of the chatter and noise that fills our minds every day, and focussing on the present.

Our thoughts and the physical sensations that we can experience tie together in a cycle that impacts on how we feel.

Through using Mindfulness exercises, whether you notice thoughts first, or uncomfortable physical sensations first, we can learn to breathe through the discomfort and focus on the present.

One Minute Breathing Exercise:

This exercise can be done standing up, or sitting down, inside or outside, anywhere you like really.

Begin by breathing in and out slowly, feeling your tummy move out as your diaphragm fills with air, and feeling it fall as you exhale. Try to breathe in deeply for three seconds, and then out slowly for three seconds, releasing the air effortlessly from your body.

Naturally as we slow down our breathing and focus on this, our mind will begin to wander, and this is ok. If you do notice your mind wandering, acknowledge that yes you are having some thoughts, but you do not need to engage in them right now, simply let them go and bring your attention back to your breathing.

Focus on the whole experience that breathing has on your body. The temperature of their air, warm or cool as it enters, how your body moves, the pleasant experience breathing deeply results in, notice that energy.

Repeat this process for one minute, or even more if you have time. How do you feel?

Moving on

Though it is important to move forward after a devastating event, it is also important to allow yourself the time and space to grieve when needed. Your grief may not be related to losing a loved one, or a pet, but it may instead be related to losing some of your hopes or dreams, the loss of significant family heirlooms, the loss of freedom (financially or otherwise), or it may be the loss of a lifestyle and ‘home’ you had created for yourself or loved ones. Significantly, all kinds of emotions can flare and amplify during times of grief and distress, and though you may be going through your own individual process, remember that others in your family will be going through a similar grief response. Respect each other’s process and give each other space, time and kindness while they work through these responses.

This period may feel incredibly overwhelming, soul-destroying, exhausting or lonely, and that is why during this grief process it may be helpful to surround yourself with some sense of normality:

–     Getting back into old routines may provide you with some structure to your day, especially when it comes to eating at the right times and getting enough sleep (both for adults and for children)

–       If the task is too daunting, break it down into small parts and work on them one at a time

–       Founding a sense of appreciation for what you do have rather than what you don’t have may also be useful, and looking back at the end of each day on what you have achieved can generate a sense of empowerment

–       Most of all, remember to surround yourself with a support network, both friends and family, and others in the community these fires have affected, and accept help from those who care and can provide it….you don’t have to go through this alone.  If you feel you need more help and support than your friends and family can provide, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

Alyce Mayman, Therapist

Bachelor of Psychological Science, Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy



(For more tips and support regarding grief and loss, please refer to my blog ‘Surviving Christmas in the Face of Grief and Loss’ from December 2014).

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