Over the last several weeks, there have been many events that have called our hearts to stand at attention. Earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and mass shootings are just a few examples of the events that have shaken our world and our communities at their core. We are not strangers to sorrow, or to the sorrow of others, and when these events affect our communities we desire to engage. Our initial reaction is often what can I do to help? How can I get involved? But with information coming from so many directions, we often find ourselves feeling hopeless and wishing there was a way that we could do more.
In the wake of the Northern California fires, I found myself asking, what can I do? I’m far removed from the situation. So I started doing what most of us do when our communities are in the throngs of pain… I turned on the news, went on Facebook, connected my loved ones and started sending out thoughts and prayers—my empathy was in full gear. However, in moving my empathy to action, I felt I had hit a wall. I kept asking my friends who had just lost everything what I could do to help, but still didn’t know what to do. I started to mobilize when I turned the question around and started asking myself, “what can I do to help?” So I made a list and started offering the resources that I had, and people started accepting with enthusiasm. I started realizing that in moments when we don’t know what to do or say, we can ask ourselves who we want to be, and action will flow from that place. Here is a list of things we want to be, and ideas of specific services we can offer.
Be generous and offer your resources. In a time of tragedy, often the first needs are the felt needs. The need for food, shelter, clean water, and medical supplies take precedence to anything else. Donating supplies requested by shelters and gifting your money are ways that you can engage in solutions from anywhere you are. Whether you are giving to a church, a relief organization, a shelter, or a crowd funding account, you can turn your empathy into action by increasing your generosity. In the same way, you can resource people by pulling coats from your closet, power bars from your cupboard or first aid kits from your car and meet an immediate need.
Be creative and offer your skill set. When I think of people who are needed in a moment of impact, I usually think of first responders, law enforcement, paramedics, nurses, and spiritual leaders, but I’ve been learning that everyone is needed. Think about your skill set and what you can offer. Are you administrative? Are you a great cook? Are you an amazing babysitter? Do you have a large network of people who value the things that matter to you? Are you an interpreter or translator? All of these skills can be gifts to a community that would value your services. Most of the occupations that we hold professionally can be a huge blessing to someone, especially when we volunteer.
Be available and offer your time. Acts of service and quality time can be such an amazing way to love people in a time of calamity. Being available to people can be an incredible way to help. It could mean spending a little extra time on dinner to make an extra dish for a friend who needs it. Or it could mean showing up at someone’s house to shred paper for a while. It could be as simple as helping them sort through boxes or as complicated as walking them through a process of planning a funeral for a lost loved one. Watching someone’s child, walking someone’s dog, driving someone to an appointment, or taking their laundry to the laundromat can be invaluable uses of our time and make a big difference to the people we love.
Be informed and offer encouragement. Although you may not think that these concepts go hand in hand, they do. The more informed you are, the more encouraging you can be. If you know where someone can find shelter, food, and resources, you can direct them to a place where they can be encouraged and nurtured. Additionally, when someone goes through trauma, they are constantly reliving their pain every time they fill out a medical, legal, insurance or police report. Often times their phones and email accounts are filled with a constant stream of questions like, what happened? Are you ok? How did that happen? etc. If we know where to get reliable information, we can be an encouragement to people by getting our information from one of those reliable sources so they do not need to continue to retell the stories of their loss. By being informed we can also avoid sharing outdated information or unhelpful rumors.
Be a friend and offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. The gift I always appreciate most is a friend. I cherish the people that I can spill my heart to and know that what I have shared is in confidence. I love when someone offers a hug without expectation, and offers a listening ear without feeling the need to solve the pain in my heart. The more we can replace platitudes and clichés with meaningful expressions of empathy, the more we genuinely connect. When we ask specific questions, we show that we care. When we are authentic with our concerns, we show that we love people. Allowing your friend to lead the conversation makes them feel recognized. When we we wait to share anecdotes and personal experiences from our lives until someone asks for advice, it is most appreciated. Knowing when to speak and when to respond with non-verbal cues is incredibly valued. Listening to understand, validating and walking alongside someone are ways that we can honor someone’s heart and experience.
Empathy moves us all in times of disaster, but when disaster strikes a community that we know, love and have lived in, our empathy and grief may be more pronounced. This is because we may truly know the pain and loss of the affected more than we would for a community we don’t have a personal connection with. I have found myself grieving the many losses our world have faced, and I was particularly moved by the fires that swept through Sonoma County and the surrounding regions. I have been so incredibly impressed by the way that the community of Northern California has responded in love and service to provide relief, and help rebuild our home. Thank you Sonoma County for showing me what true empathy in action looks like in community.