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Disaster gives us a glimpse at dealing with trauma

  • Author: Josh Louwerse
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 7, 2018
  • Published December 7, 2018

Men who said they work at the Hilton Hotel stand in Town Square because they didn't want to be inside during the earthquake aftershocks, Nov. 30, 2018. (Anne Raup / ADN)

On Nov. 30 at 8:29 a.m., Anchorage and the Mat-Su shook. Some of us were driving, suddenly unsure if we had a flat tire or if we might bounce off the road. Some were at home watching books and dishes crash to the floor, or at work or school hiding under desks. Many feared for our own safety and that of our loved ones. When the shaking was over, we emerged and took care of those around us, searched for those who were missing. We texted, called and opened social media to look for information, check on our friends and tell our stories.

One thing for sure is that for all of us who experienced the earthquake, as it turned from earthquake into EARTHQUAKE, were altered in some way. The shaking, fear and helplessness was traumatic and we’ve been reminded of that collective trauma with each aftershock. Though we were all in different places, we experienced it together and now together we are working to find peace.

When the earthquake hit I was helping my son and daughter, four and six, get ready to go. When the quake grew violent I scooped my children into my arms and covered them up on the living room floor, using my body to shield them as glass shattered, shelves toppled and things fell from the walls. We will remember that one minute for the rest of our lives.

I wonder if this is an opportunity for us to catch a glimpse into the world of kids who are experiencing traumatic events on a daily basis.

As Director of Program at Covenant House Alaska, I’ve seen all kinds of youths walk through our shelter doors: kids in foster care; teens from detention and treatment centers; youths who are fleeing abusive or addictive homes that are so turbulent they would willingly choose homelessness. To become homeless is traumatic in itself, and many of our youths have experienced horrific events on the way to homelessness. Most people believe homeless kids have made bad choices or are just punks or thugs. In reality, the majority of youths who are experiencing homelessness have been subjected to serious trauma and don’t have the support they need to work through it.

Remember how disoriented you felt after the quake, how your heart jumped with each aftershock? That’s how many of our youths feel every day, except their aftershocks come in the form of people and places, sounds and smells, times of day. They want to move forward, find stability and wholeness, and they can — but they lack the same support we have been giving each other since the quake.

Through the onslaught of aftershocks, we have been encouraged to take care of ourselves and give each other grace. As we process this jarring event, we find ourselves jumping at every little sound, becoming easily angered or filled with anxiety. Many of us feel like we are not thinking straight, are more tired or apathetic; others have pushed into the work of fixing and rebuilding. We are all reacting in different ways trying to get back a sense of normalcy.

A few days after the quake, my son took to pretending his body didn’t work when asked to do chores, and my daughter erupted in frustrated tears. As tired parents, we started to get angry until it struck us that this moment wasn’t about chores at all. We made a new plan, ate dinner together, put on a show and left the cleanup for another day. My kids don’t yet have the language to sort out what they experienced, and it was coming out in their actions. They needed us to simply be with them.

Can we have this same empathy for someone else’s kids that we have for our own? Just like us, youths at Covenant House need people who will gather around them, give them space to feel, to be angry, to cry, to have days where they don’t want to do anything. They need people like us to see their fear, anger, outbursts or difficult behavior for what they are – an attempt to process trauma.

As normalcy returns to your lives, I ask you to remember your experience during and after the quake and put it to work for those who need the same grace and care we are giving each other. I believe in our community’s ability to love and care for one another, and I believe you have something to offer young people in need of help. There are a number of organizations in Anchorage supporting young people in hard places. Covenant House Alaska is one. Our young people can’t move forward without empathy and support as they work through shattered childhoods. Together, we can help everyone heal their trauma and go on to live happy and healthy lives.

Josh Louwerse is Director of Program at Covenant House Alaska, where for seven years he has worked with at-risk, homeless and trafficked young people.

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