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When history is in ruins

Grieving over the loss of material objects can be a healthy response when a house burns, psychologists say.

October 30, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

In time, almost everyone returns to the neighborhood, to gawk at the naked chimney stacks and scorched pools, and to hunt for artifacts of a former life -- their own, as it existed only days or weeks before. It's the kind of scavenger hunt that drops some people to their knees, for it can bring to mind all that was lost -- the graduation rings, the photo albums, the kitchen magnets, the mirror frame that hung in the room where the family played hearts, watched "The Simpsons," had Friday night popcorn and root beer.

"It's something your mother doesn't prepare you for: how to lose your history," said Muffy Thorne, one of thousands of people who lost their houses in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991.

In recent decades, psychologists have had the opportunity to interview people who have lost their homes in California fires, in hurricanes along the Eastern Seaboard, in tornadoes through the Midwest. The monetary value of what's destroyed is important, as are the means to rebuild; but studies suggest that the mental shock of losing a house -- and recovery from it -- have more to do with how well people understand what psychological support a home provides, and why.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 9 Features Desk 3 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire study -- A story last Thursday about the psychological impact of losing a home incorrectly reported the results of a study conducted by UCLA researchers of the Laguna Beach fires of 1993. The study did not find that adults were more distressed by home loss than children; investigators surveyed children only, and they found that those who lost their homes were at high risk of psychological distress, even six months afterward. In some other studies, adults have reported higher levels of post-fire distress than adolescents and children. But many children are deeply affected, the UCLA researchers found, and for potentially extended periods.

"I think we forget that we're all intensely physical beings, and after negotiating the same space year after year, the house itself, its nooks and crannies, becomes a part of who we are, our identity," said Ellin Bloch, a psychologist at the California School of Professional Psychology in Alhambra. "We may go to one room to be with friends, another place to be alone. The physical architecture becomes embedded in us, and this tremendous feeling of disorientation comes from standing there and seeing only the sky -- and all the private spaces exposed, gone."

The grieving over objects is hardly mere materialism, experts say. On the contrary, it is a healthy response to losing hard evidence of our own existence and history, and distracts attention from the disaster itself. In a 2002 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing interviewed 440 people in the Philadelphia area who had lost their houses in fires. A year after the tragedy, a quarter of the people were still highly distressed, they found.

"They tended to be people who were trying to come up with explanations for the fire, searching for answers to questions like, 'Why me?' " said Arlene Houldin, associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study's authors. "This kind of causal searching was highly associated with distress more than 13 months after the fire."

Fires happen; neighbors come and go, children grow up and leave. Life's trophies and class rings usually hang around forever, though, and one of the most natural responses to a devastating house fire is to find some items that themselves become mementos of life before the apocalypse. The Thornes were able to salvage their brass andirons from the fireplace. Across the street, Jane and Jim Moffatt used homemade strainers to sift through the ash and retrieve dog tags, a bronzed baby shoe and one silverware setting.

Merritt Schreiber of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, a disaster response center affiliated with UCLA, worked with the Red Cross during the Laguna Beach fires of 1993 and later studied how people coped. "The overwhelming desire was to find something to represent the continuity of their lives. One single item found in the rubble could be extremely meaningful."

Child psychologists sometimes speak of a "transitional object," the blanket or teddy bear that a young boy or girl wants to take to day care or preschool or even on a trip to the store. In a sense, psychologists say, adults also long for such objects to mentally take leave of one house and arrive in another. When all these items disappear at once in a fire, it can prompt a dissociation from one's own life that is similar to what psychologists have found in refugees. "I saw a woman on TV yesterday who was very upset that she'd lost a picture of herself and her husband" in the fire, said Jane Moffatt, 63, the Thornes' former neighbor. "I had to look away; she hasn't begun to face the 150 million other things that are gone forever."

Gone too are the easy chair where Mom read, the front stoop where Granddad smoked, the corner of the kitchen where you sipped wine and listened to the Laker games. These spots are not merely comfortable and familiar; they're the exact and only places where individuals settle into their own company, or others', after a day of work or school. They're the site of daily reunions, crammed with lasting memories of everyday living, and their loss leaves people with a kind of existential dread, Bloch said, as if they had returned to their high school reunion and no one remembered them.

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