Winter tornado: Trauma victims need time to heal

Geri Nikolai

It’s been three months since the home Gary Paris built for his family west of Rockford was destroyed by fire.

Gary, his wife, Connie, and their young daughter had lived there a month.

“It’s a nightmare, sitting there watching your home go up in flames and knowing all you have are the clothes on your back,” Connie Paris said. “You’re losing memories, things from your wedding, things passed down from your grandmother, dishes that had been in the family for generations and the everyday things you work so hard to buy.

“It changes your way of life.”

She recently took a day to go shopping out of town. She almost didn’t because that’s what she had done the day of the fire.

Their 3-year-old daughter, Guiliana, was angry and confused after the fire, insisting that family members were hurt even though they were all right.

Today, she’s still wary. She was with her grandmother Monday when the tornado struck Boone County and was afraid her mom would die in the storm.

The Boone County residents recovering from Monday’s tornado are likely feeling much like the Parises.

Reaction to major loss is usually shock or denial, experts agree. People might feel numb or disconnected and can become easily frightened, anxious, depressed, angry, irritable or hypervigilant. They might cry, they might scream, they might say very little.

Losing a home is a “horrific trauma,” said Billy Wilson, a personal service officer for the Rockford police and fire units who directs the police chaplain staff.

“People don’t start to process incidents like that for 48 to 72 hours afterward,” he said. “Then they start to realize what happened and they start grieving, or they get angry, or some are still in shock. It takes a long time for an impact like major trauma to be handled by the brain.”

Wilson can offer aid to disaster victims with more empathy than most people. He was 13 when his family home burned. Everyone was safe but everything was destroyed.

“It’s a devastating, empty feeling,” Wilson said.

“You see everything you’ve worked for, collected, built up, the memories, the special items bought by you or given to you by special people, it’s all destroyed,” Wilson said. “It’s an empty, hollow feeling that doesn’t go away for a long, long time.”

It’s important for victims to know that whatever they’re feeling is OK, he said.

“They may feel like they’re going crazy. They’re not. The reactions are normal reactions to abnormal situations,” he said.

Disaster victims might experience physical symptoms along with mental pain, experts said. Some might not be able to sleep, and some might want to sleep all the time. They might feel sick or dizzy, lose their appetite or want to eat a lot.

The difficulties, Moski said, “can last anywhere from weeks to months to years, depending on what happened and the individual’s ability to cope. The important thing is, if symptoms persist over time, people should seek professional help. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t know.”

And sometimes that’s because friends who want to comfort tend to say exactly the wrong things.

Shari Carley of Beloit, Wis., has been a Red Cross volunteer after tornadoes in Illinois and Wisconsin, and has been on medical missions around the world. She has learned what helps, and what doesn’t help, victims get through a crisis.

“It means nothing to have someone say ‘I know how you feel,’ ” she said. “If you haven’t been through it, you don’t know.”

Another no-no: “It’s lucky no one was hurt.”

“It’s not our place to judge that,” Carley said. “You can’t measure their loss. Only they can do that.”

Losing a home, said Laura Moski of SwedishAmerican Health System’s Center for Mental Health, is a tremendous loss.

“It’s your lifestyle, the way life has always been, your attachments,” she said.

The best consolation you can offer is to listen, Moski said.

“Give them permission to tell their story and permission to feel how ever they’re feeling. Whatever it is, that’s their way of getting through it,” she said.

“Don’t tell them how they should feel or what they should do. And don’t push talking if they’re not ready. Let them know you’re available.”

The Parises plan to rebuild on the same land, but they’re still healing, Connie Paris said.

Emotionally, “this is something we’ll be working through forever. There are still days I feel like it never happened. Every day you wake up and think: What could happen today? ... Because you never expected your new home to burn down,” she said.

And in some cases, response from friends and others in the community can ease the pain. Connie Paris remembers how a neighbor she barely knew went shopping the night of the fire and returned with toothbrushes, soap, socks, pajamas and other necessities. Others opened their home to family members to get warm or use the bathroom. At a benefit two months later, strangers bought tickets, even if they couldn’t attend, just to help, Paris said.

As her family waits for the red tape to be concluded so they can rebuild, Paris has some practical advice for people who were hit by Monday’s tornado.

“I would tell them to really believe in God, and to take all the help you can get because you’ll need it,” she said. “Be patient. It’s a rough time. Every day is going to be hard. It will get easier, it will get better, but it doesn’t seem like it for a while.”

Staff writer Geri Nikolai can be reached at 815-987-1337 or

Helping disaster victims

Let them talk and don’t judge their feelings or plans.

Don’t tell them when you think they should “move on.” Healing varies from person to person and takes time.

Don’t push them if they’re reluctant to talk. You might suggest they talk to a clergyman or someone they trust.

Don’t tell them the disaster could have been worse and they should feel lucky.

Don’t ask, ‘Howare you doing?’ Instead, tell them you’re sorry and you’ve come to help, then ask what you can do.

If they want to make drastic changes or decisions immediately after the disaster, try to get them to wait.

Realize they need time to process the enormous loss they have suffered.

Realize that everyone grieves differently. Don’t judge their way of grieving, or if they seem not to grieve.

If symptoms of inability to cope persist after several weeks, suggest they seek professional help.

Help them get back to normal as much as possible.

Make sure they have a quiet place to rest.

Let them know of any support groups that might help.

Keep your support coming as long as it’s needed. It could be weeks, months or years.

For more on coping with traumatic events, go online to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site has much information on coping with disasters.

Sources: Rockford clinical social worker Laura Moski; Red Cross volunteer Shari Carley; Rockford personal services Officer Billy Wilson