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We are all trying to figure out ways to help

“Stay safe. Stay kind. Stay hopeful.”

Those words are in my mind as I receive messages from friends and former neighbors dealing not only with a pandemic but the fiery loss of home and community.

The personal stories come from people I know and love, such as a pair of fragile but resilient 85-year-olds who were given just a few minutes notice to evacuate their home and spent fire-exposed hours searching for gas for their car and then a room at the inn — any inn — finally getting the last room in a motel hundreds of miles from their residence. They were able to return to their neighborhood and it was intact, but so many others could not.

So many neighborhoods and communities totally demolished. What does one say to people who have lost everything?

“Evacuate north” was my well-intentioned response to many. “You can live with us for a while.”

My husband reminds me that the number of those offers made over the last week will mean our home gets very cozy and six-feet distancing nearly impossible. But I hear from folks with homes smaller than ours who are embracing several families. People are donating beds and bedding, food, clothing and ideas about ways to cope.

“We will take your pets,” posted my niece on Facebook. “We have a fenced-in backyard and we are good with animals.”

“We have room for horses,” said another post.

“I want to bring donuts to the firefighters,” said my 7-year-old grandson. And then he and his mom did just that.

The stories of generosity and outreach are just beginning to be told. I see the wondrously good hearts of so many, and I am reminded that tragedy can make us better — stronger. Less divided. More united.

I recall a friend and neighbor, decades ago, who experienced unexpected tragedy — her husband died in his sleep and soon after she encountered body-smothering shingles and was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. But in response to all this, she did something quite remarkable — she made a list of all the things she needed help with (a backed-up toilet, identification of a live-in caregiver — it was a long list). Then she made a list of friends and family who might help, and she asked them — very specifically, very directly. When the response was affirmative, she offered her “God bless,” and when it was not, she moved down the list.

We are all, every one of us, trying to figure out ways to help. I am told that donations to the Red Cross and United Way lead the list of ways to support your community. But there are other things. Just listening is one — actively hearing the stories and allowing people to “let the sad out.” Staying in touch might be another. As the situations of people deposed from their homes change over time, what you could not offer this week you may be able to offer a few months hence.

But as critical as a donation and hands-on action are, perhaps most important is how you make people in horrific and challenging circumstances feel when you communicate with them — acknowledged, comforted, hopeful.

Ever trying.

Sharon Johnson is a long-time columnist and a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.