I watched my next door neighbor’s house burn on CNN. I was at my brother’s house in a Chicago suburb that day, visiting family for Thanksgiving 2007. There was nothing I could do. It was reasonable to expect that our home would be next, if it wasn’t already gone.
The city of Malibu posted our address, his and already about 20 others within a few hours as “Completely Gone.” It was a vicious gut punch. My dear dad took the whole family, including me and my daughter, out to breakfast later that morning. I had to leave the table twice to go stand in the foyer, heaving great sobs. I made frantic calls to the dog sitter. I checked the Malibu website relentlessly. Another friend and then another lost their homes.
That day, 56 homes, nine offices and one gifted sculptor’s studio burned down in the second of three Malibu wildfires that season. I lost one home, one office…and one feisty Chihuahua. People often say, “Why would anyone live in a fire zone?” But that was the first time any fire had come as far as either of my properties. I really thought we were safe.
When the fire department finally let us return to the smoldering remains of our lives, most of my neighbors walked around hugging one another, reeling with shock. Reporters descended on us like flies on a carcass. I’d been trained in positive thinking, so I smiled for the cameras and chirped that everything was going to be alright. I found a whiteboard that had survived in my half-burnt shed, so I wrote in big letters, “Every cloud has a silver lining! We will get through this.” I put it up against my perfectly unscathed mailbox to try to cheer my neighbors…and convince myself.
That first night, we spent $1,200 at Target buying underwear, toothpaste, shampoo and something to wear tomorrow. My daughter and I lived in hotels for months. It was excruciating for her, a young teen. She’d lost her pet, her clothes, her books, her childhood mementos. I grieved her baby teeth and the kindergarten artwork I’d savored and my late grandma’s wedding ring.
The Malibu community always rallies around those who lose homes. It was touching to feel the support. Tragically, a third wildfire happened a few weeks later. Rentals became scarcer with each attack from nature, but we somehow managed to land a place. For months before I left, I would sit while my daughter was across the street at school, trying to remember what I did for a living.
People who haven’t been through a colossal natural disaser or something comparable to a devastating fire might not know what it’s like to have nothing left in an instant. I feel surges of compassion when I see people’s possessions ruined by man or nature. It’s hard to imagine how expensive, tedious and time consuming it is to put one’s life back together, toothbrush by lightbulb by bath towel. It’s hard to focus on work when one’s emotions are tied up with the things that are lost or the onerous insurance process in which you have to detail everything that is gone, not to mentuon the need to support others also affected and grieve what’s lost forever.
I cannot even imagine how much harder it is for people who don’t have insurance, or good insurance. There are so many things you need to think about: finding food, clothing and shelter; paperwork; sympathy calls from well-meaning people that cause the wound to burst open over and over; taking care of all the normal life things you did before the disaster, but now without the comfort of knowing where anything is.
Looking back, if I had advice for anyone recovering from a disaster while trying to manage their business (or even just return to a job or school) it would be: Be easier on yourself. Especially as entrepreneurs, we imagine we have the world under our control…until we don’t. It’s a gut-wrenching lesson in humility. Take a breath. Give yourself a hug.
Here’s what I learned:
- Accept all the help you’re offered.
- Delegate everything you can.
- Share your story with anyone who will listen. Some people have advice, some will give comfort, some will have solutions.
- Take it easier. PTSD is a very real diagnosis. Get professional help if you can.
- Acknowledge the limitations and allow for the time to heal your business and your life. It will take at least three times as long as you predict.
- Trust the process and look for what you can learn from this.
The fire changed me, my daughter, our family, our lifestyle, my net worth, my level of enthusiasm and the way I do business at fundamental levels. On the good side, I invested in building a virtual team, which not only freed me from my location but also allowed me to work with some excellent individuals and be ready to get through the pandemic. I replaced my equipment with the newest models, which turned out to be an asset. I spent time fine-turning my marketing and client-attraction strategies. And best of all, I learned that I am more resilient than I had ever imagined.
It would easy to say, “Suck it up, buttercup!” and encourage others to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but the truth of the journey is that it will change you. Whether that change is a positive one or a negative one in your life, your business and your soul — well, that’s up to you.
Wendy Keller is a human being well-acquainted with loss and suffering. This was written on what would have been the 32nd birthday of her daughter Amelia, who died at just 18 months old in a car accident – along with her big brother Jeremy – in March 1991. Wendy is a literary agent, owns a speakers bureau and consults people on how to flourish as authors and/or speakers. She is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Platform Building by Entrepreneur Press. To contact Wendy for publishing, speaking or media requests, please go to www.KellerMedia.com.