In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when many of us lost power and were inconvenienced, scared, or hurt, it’s important to find ways to help others, as this can often be empowering. During the holiday season, many of us try to help out anyway, but with our region being hit so badly by a natural disaster, including some deaths due to the storm, it’s even more necessary to reach out.
As I write this, my house is without power for the seventh day. My office, miraculously, never lost power, so at least I can come here to do work, charge things, and stay warm if need be. I have been inconvenienced and cold and lost some food. The people in Breezy Point and the New Jersey shore were not so lucky. My cousin who lives in Brick, NJ, had three feet of water in her house, and many pieces of furniture, including those that were in our family for years, have been damaged or destroyed. Over 100 homes were burned to ash in Breezy Point, an area already hit hard on September 11th, and by a plane crash, also in 2001 (many residents of Breezy are cops and other first responders, and the area saw many deaths in the World Trade Center). When I want to complain, or even scream that I am cold and annoyed, I think of the people who lost so much more than a box of Eggos and a quart of milk. My mother raised me to be charitable and to volunteer; even though we never had much, her attitude was that there was always someone with less.
Volunteering and helping out makes us feel good for a lot of reasons. In general, we usually volunteer for causes we feel strongly about or things we find enjoyable. I do volunteer work that involves dogs because I am an animal lover, and also usher at the Tarrytown Music Hall because I like live entertainment. We often meet like-minded people when doing such work, and find a social outlet through these endeavors; some of us even meet our significant others in such circumstances. In times of intense need, such as after a disaster or other trauma, we can find even more meaning in helping out—knowing that people are in such need can give us a sense of purpose, or help us feel more in control during a time where we are reminded that life is fragile and nature is random. My cousin, who relocated to Florida but is a Brooklyn girl through and through, is doing a mud run in a couple of weeks and has decided to use it to raise funds for Staten Islanders affected by the storm. She said she wishes she could do more, and she feels somewhat powerless all those miles away while the city of our youth, the places we frequented, like Breezy Point, Mill Basin, and Staten Island are in a shambles. By asking all of us to give a few dollars, whatever we can, she feels that she can then write one check and give back to the community she loves.
I keep thinking I’d like to help too, but I’m one of those people without power, and it’s making me feel very disoriented and overwhelmed. Just the disruption of my routine has put me into a bit of a spin, and I am hearing from patients as well that even though they were spared devastatingdamage and are merely inconvenienced, they feel out of sorts. Children missed a week of school. People can’t get to work and can’t even telecommute if they don’t have power. The usual five minute gasoline stop has turned into an all-day affair with tensions running high and anxiety about pumps running dry before we get to the front of the line. I have even noticed my cats acting strangely, one in particular, who seems most disrupted by the whole thing, missing meals and hiding under furniture. Helping other people in light of this feeling of disruption can help make the change in routine a little easier to manage. If you are changing your routine to deliver food and water, it may feel a little better than changing your routine to stay at home and do nothing.
I am hoping that the unity our region has felt during the aftermath of Sandy will segue into a more joyous and giving holiday season; that as we start shopping for the latest gadgets and eating too much and drinking too much and partying like the holidays are one long frat house bash, we will remember that so many people lost everything in the hurricane; and also that we not forget that there are people who, hurricane or not, are not as fortunate as we are and can use support during a time that causes stress because of the expectations to be festive, overindulgent and happy. This is a time of year where the absence of money, family, or comfort is felt even more strongly as we see Rockwellian images of how happy everyone else seems to be. It is not that hard, either to do something for others during this time. Toys for Tots is always collecting for children who may not have toys to play with if not for charities. I noticed that EF is looking for families to include a foreign student in their Thanksgiving dinner plans so they can connect with new people and learn more about American culture. Some people go to soup kitchens and help hand out meals to those who have nowhere to go. Even buying a few extra items at the store that you can toss into a bin for a local food pantry or needy family is helpful. I like how at Petco they always have the option at checkout to toss in a few bucks for a shelter animal. As I spend a fortune on my indulged pets, it means nothing to me to add a couple more dollars to give a homeless dog a meal or a toy, but it may mean a tremendous amount to the dog and to the facility that is running on less than adequate funding and donations. All supermarkets and other stores should do that too for people as well as animals.
We have a lot to be thankful for and we sometimes lose sight of that. Even during hard times, don’t forget the things you do have, and don’t forget that there are people who have it worse. As I try desperately to keep the temperature in my house from going down any further, there are people whose homes are nothing but foundation. As I go into the holiday season I will try not to forget that. And neither should any of us. Don’t forget to reach out during this season, you may be surprised how good you feel for doing so.
[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D, practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow. [/blockquote]