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Zoom group attempts to help fire survivors cope

When horrible things happen, many people need someone to talk to, but if a pandemic prevents that, many use Zoom, and that’s what psychotherapist Nando Raynolds uses for his weekly “online peer support groups.”

It’s free, and anyone affected by recent fires — and who has an internet connection — is welcome to join for 90 minutes and share their experiences, grief, inspiring moments, stories, resources, survival tips and whatever is on their mind.

“It’s help for getting your life back together,” says Raynolds. “We usually start with fire stories, sharing what it was like for them and how they’re recovering, the volunteering they’ve done, the hassles with insurance companies, the grief of coming to terms with what we’ve lost. We all have to go through stages or layers of grief.”

The stages are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though they can come in any order, and some people don’t experience them all. In the virtual groups, there’s also humor, which allows people to relax and envision some of the old life before fire bore down on them Sept. 8.

The group, called “Rising From the Ashes,” meets at 6:30 p.m. Mondays and 9:30 a.m. Thursdays. Go to the Zoom waiting room at http://bit.ly/9-20Fires to get admitted. The Thursday group focuses more on people who lost homes.

Raynolds and his team of mental health facilitators can digitally break the group into small groups so everyone has more of a chance to speak and be heard. It’s sponsored by Ashland Community Counseling Center and is open to anyone in the valley.

For Megan O’Melia, it was having old friends visit from the Bay Area.

“It so boosted my mental health and immunity to have fun,” she said with a smile. “The stress from COVID and fire has been bad. Every time I hear a siren, I feel scared. But if it burns down, really, what does it matter? What matters is community, friends. So I’m putting my energy into building that.”

Zoomers cited trauma from the lack of information on the day of the fire (Facebook being the main source), the horror of trying to get people out of trailer parks, having only one exit from the fire zone, and the blockage from big trucks pouring into Ashland from the closed freeway. These are exacerbated, they add, by the pandemic and upheavals of an election year.

Many have not lost their homes and, said Raynolds, “They have a certain amount of survivor’s guilt or feelings of ‘how did I deserve this?’

“It’s so bizarre for people to look at houses they’ve been in and they aren’t there now. The neighborhood is gone,” he says. “The whole valley got PTSD from that wind ... and we’ll be on edge till it rains.”

Participants found soothing light moments talking about self care, such as reading, meditating, napping, cooking, talking to friends around the country and in their neighborhood and feeling useful by making political calls.

“It lifts my spirits to go camping, look at fall colors, exercise more,” says Ali Mostue.

In post-fire days, Raynolds says, people were busy focusing on insurance and getting food and a roof, but when that got handled, “they have room to feel through events emotionally. For those who lost homes, it takes a year or more to get steadier again and figure out all the things you loved,” and it hits you anew.

“Everyone’s traumas might be different, but we’re all the same,” said Keziah Hinchen. “There’s this awareness of how deeply important it is to get with people. I feel best when I’m taking care of other people, asking how can I help you or how can you help me?”

While it may be hard for one person or family to significantly go into helping mode for a burned-out family, Hinchen says she is seeing an inventive new approach where, say, five families “adopt” one family that lost everything, enabling the five to organize consistent help.

Some, like Sarah Breckinridge, explored safer places to live, far from fire country, but realized all her friends of many decades are here, her support system is here, and it would be hard to make new friends elsewhere.

O’Melia, who lives in Ashland’s Quiet Village, the flash point of the fire, says, “Everyone I know is traumatized. People are scared. It’s good people are talking. The fire felt ungrounding. My roots are deep here, so I’m reaching down deeper.”

Raynolds lives in Talent. His home survived, but, he notes, “Driving through Talent and Phoenix, it’s just horrifying for everyone even if you’re safe and sound, and it will be for years, until we’re all fully recovered.

“I think of myself as a sturdy, resilient, bulletproof kind of guy, but I get teary at the drop of a hat in ways I didn’t used to. I am very well resourced with all sorts of skills and social connections, no financial stresses and fortunate in so many ways, but I feel my fragility with this. Everyone’s reeling from this stuff. It’s so intense, but it’s a very easy way for people to connect with one another.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.