Saturday, March 23, 2013

Surviving the Wrath of Nature

Surviving a natural disaster has to do with much more than getting through the environmental, physical, and financial aspects of the disaster. The increased vulnerability that most people experience when they have faced extreme danger, death and physical injury, and the loss of their regular ways of life cannot be ignored. Such feelings of vulnerability almost always lead to immense levels of stress. And the effects—the emotional toll--of that stress can vary from person to person.

The recent heavy winter storms throughout the Midwest remind us of how vulnerable we humans are in the face of Mother Nature’s fury.  Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Great Plains and yet no matter how well-prepared we think we are, we continue to be surprised by how helpless we are in the face of nature’s sudden fury.

The extremes of Kansas weather are often exacerbated by heavy winds that only increase the storm’s fury. Heavy winter snows accompanied by high winds create drifts of six feet or more and the temperature can drop suddenly to 30 degrees below zero with a wind chill making it even colder.  The wind and snow are often so fierce that people can become lost within a few yards of their front doors.

But winter is not the only time the wind is vicious.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the settlement of the Great Plains provided the growing nation with agricultural riches and a bustling farm economy, but the rapid development of previously arid lands into massive wheat fields had a detrimental effect upon the land itself. Where buffalo grass had previously provided nutrients and kept the soil anchored to the ground, the newly plowed wheat fields left the soil exposed to the elements.  In the summer of 1934, with conditions worsened by a long drought, winds began to whip the sunbaked soil into thick, dark, low-riding clouds of dust. The dust clouds assaulted everything, destroying crops, killing livestock and suffocating farmers and their families.

Of course the most infamous of the killer winds is the tornado.  A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour.  Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long.  Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others.  Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any advance warning is possible. The most destructive tornado in Kansas history smashed through Topeka on June 8, 1966. The storm cut a swath of ruin though the capital city, destroying hundreds of homes, causing millions of dollars in damage, and killing 16 residents.  It remains one of the costliest tornadoes on record.

A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest wildfires. Typically the state experiences most of its wildfires in March and April when ranchers are conducting controlled burns on the prairie.  Drought conditions and high winds make wild fires especially dangerous. When conditions green up in the summer and the humidity is higher, it lowers the chances.  Kansas Forest Service officials estimated that more than 41,000 acres were burned across the state in 2012 making it one of the worst years on record.

But killer winds are not the only way Mother Nature dispenses her fury.  Measured in terms of human suffering, tremendous losses in property, and extensive disruption of business activities, the July 1951 flood ranks as the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of the region.  The floods inn Kansas were caused by above-normal precipitation during May and June that caused some major flooding and established high streamflows, high ground-water levels and a minimum capacity for the soil to absorb any additional rainfall.

The heavy spring rains were followed by the great storm of July 9-13, 1951 that was centered near the common divide of the Kansas and Neosho River Basins.  Precipitation began during the afternoon of July 9 and continued through the morning of July 10.  Following a brief respite, the precipitation began again the evening of July 10 and continued through July 12.  Each day was characterized by excessive rainfall during the late afternoon and night with little or no rainfall during the early and mid-afternoon hours.  By midnight July 13, unprecedented total amounts of rain had fallen since the beginning of the storm.

Total damage from the flood was unparalleled. From the headwaters of the Kansas River to the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, about 2 million acres were flooded. 45,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 17 major bridges, some of them weighted with locomotives in an attempt to hold them, were washed away. Transportation was disrupted as highways and railroads were closed from days to weeks.  One of the more unusual damage reports came from LeRoy, Kansas where the Neosho River had washed caskets from graves at the cemetery.

It is quite normal for people to experience mild stress reactions to natural disasters like these for several days or weeks afterward. Often, initially, people will experience shock and denial in the first couple hours or days after the disaster. When shock occurs, people feel stunned or dazed. Denial means that they cannot acknowledge that a stressful situation has occurred or that they cannot experience the full intensity of what has happened. Both shock and denial are normal protective responses to the trauma of the disaster, which can be too much to absorb all at once.

After those initial reactions subside, people’s reactions can vary to a large extent. Often they may feel intense and unpredictable feelings, though sometimes feelings of anger and fear may be triggered by specific reminders of the natural disaster. Some people will have reactions immediately following the event and some will have delayed reactions. Some will recover quickly and some will have adverse effects for a long time. Though most people’s reactions will dissipate within a few weeks, as many as one in three survivors of natural disasters will experience more severe stress responses. Those responses can last for multiple weeks, months, or even years.

At some period, my family has weathered all of these natural disasters and they have left a lasting effect on each one of us.  It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit that we are able to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and do whatever it takes to move on, rebuild, or start over.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Grieving the Death of a Child

The death of a child is particularly difficult because it’s not supposed to happen.  It is out of the natural order of things.  Young lives are full of promise and possibilities and should never be cut short before they have a chance to be realized.  Every parent I know would gladly exchange his or her own life for the lives of their children. But sometimes that choice is not ours to make.

When Ken and I got married he had three grown sons and I had eight year old twins. I don’t know what possessed him to take on a second family just as his was leaving the nest, but I am forever thankful for the wit and wisdom he provided in the raising of mine.  I have often said that God brought us together for a reason.  It seemed an uncanny coincidence that he should be grieving the loss of his wife of 22 years just as I was experiencing a painful divorce.

I was concerned that his boys would not accept their father entering a new relationship so soon after the death of their mother, but they welcomed me in and made me feel comfortable.  I made no attempt to “mother” these adult children, but I tried to be supportive and I loved playing “grandma” to their children.
Greg was the oldest of the boys at age 27.  He was married and had a three-year old daughter. They were struggling as a couple and having financial difficulty. Less than two years separated Randy from his older brother, Greg and his younger brother, Lowell.   As the middle child,   Randy was a gentle, loving young man with a giving nature. He was enjoying the party life and was living on his own in Denver when Ken and I were married.  Ken’s youngest son, Lowell enjoyed being the clown of the family. He worked nights at a local nightclub and dreamed of becoming a top chef.

As parents we are not responsible for the life decisions our adult children make.  We can only celebrate their successes and stand ready to help pick up the pieces when things go wrong. Randy’s lifestyle led him to contract HIV/AIDS in 1987 shortly after Ken and I moved to California to begin our new life together.  We could only watch helplessly as his health declined and his smile disappeared.  His death two years later at the age of 27 was extremely hard on Ken. I could not begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. But just as he had handled the death of his wife, he picked up the pieces of his life and moved forward.  I’m not sure I could have done the same.  From time to time, a memory or special day will trigger a return of the grieving, but he doesn’t let it consume him.

Last year, after leading a very troubled life, Greg finally found his peace by committing suicide. I feared that the pain of losing two children would be impossible to bear, but once again, Ken grieved and moved on. His greatest remorse was that his children had suffered in their final days on earth and he had not been there to comfort them. His emotional strength in dealing with this loss has consistently amazed me.

My grandmother lost a child at the young age of 5 months and the loss affected her for her entire life. She became paranoid and bitter. She mistrusted everyone and had difficulty expressing her emotions. To us she seemed cold and unfeeling. She seldom laughed or caressed us and seemed overly critical of everything.
I was curious to know whether these two very different responses  to the death of a child were typical of the different grieving processes experienced by men and women.  

Several research articles pointed to the fact that mothers often have more difficulty overcoming the death of a child than fathers do.  This can be traced partly to social norms that place the mother in the more nurturing role in the family.  She tends to take on the responsibility for the care and protection of her young so when something goes wrong, she takes it as a personal failure and the guilt can be unbearable.  Because of the nursing experience, mothers often bond more quickly to their infant child than fathers. Therefore, losing an infant when it is most dependent on the nurturing care of the parent may be particularly difficult for the mother. As today’s fathers take a more active parenting role, this may be truer in my grandmothers’ case that it is today. 

The research also indicates that it is not uncommon for women who experience the death of a child to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) similar to that experienced by combat veterans. They often suffer from psychological disorders like paranoia and substance dependency which can last throughout their lives. Treatment for PTSD has only recently come under scrutiny with the return of combat veterans from Vietnam. In my grandmother’s time, there was no diagnosis or treatment for the disorder.  Like combat veterans, grieving parents were simply told to get on with their lives and have more children.  What is misunderstood in this pronouncement is that one can never replace a child no matter how many children come afterward.  There is always a void and an empty place at the table.  There is always a life unfulfilled and the dreams of what might have been.

Pretending that the child never existed is not an option for the grieving parent.  There are still memories to be shared and smiles to be remembered. Just because their lives were cut short does not mean that they had never lived or that their lives did not touch others in the short time they were with us. When asked how many children he has, Ken always answers, “I had three sons.”