Psychiatrist: Victims need to stay active, keep talking

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

Those who lost their homes in the wildfires in Boulder and Larimer Counties over the past couple of weeks should try to stay active, talk about their emotions and guard against falling into long-term depression, according to a local psychiatrist.


Emily Bucy, a psychiatrist at Boulder Community Hospital, told Boulder Weekly the classic model of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) created by Elisabeth K%uFFFDbler-Ross can be applied to a disaster like the loss of a home in a wildfire, but with some differences.

For instance, K%uFFFDbler-Ross’s model was based on how a given individual deals with terminal illness, whereas major natural disasters like the Fourmile Canyon fire affect hundreds of people. That group dynamic, Bucy says, can offer some support, since the victims realize they are not on their own.

“The person is not alone, and that seems to help people in these natural disasters,” she says.

And unlike other types of individual trauma, like child abuse or sexual assault, Bucy explains, there isn’t the same stigma and secrecy associated with victims of natural disaster. The act was not done intentionally. It happened by chance, and there is typically a great deal of community support being poured into assisting victims of natural disasters.

But those who have lost their homes will likely experience some of the same emotional roller coaster that victims of other types of trauma feel. Bucy says they will likely exhibit some or all of the five stages of grief, but not necessarily in any particular order, and for varying periods of time.

“People don’t go through them the same way,” she explains. “People hop around. People may skip something.”

The fire victims may also be susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Signs of PTSD usually fall into three categories: re-experiencing (like nightmares and flashbacks), hyper-arousal (being easily startled, suffering from insomnia or acting hyper-vigilant) and avoidance (staying away from fires, loud sounds or smoke, for instance).

If someone who has lost their home to wildfire exhibits these symptoms beyond a period of three to six months, Bucy says, it may be a sign of PTSD.

Those who have an “internal locus of control” — that is, they see the center of control as being within themselves — are less likely to suffer from PTSD, she explains. Those who feel a total loss of control are more likely to experience the disorder, especially if they feel no hope for the future.

Therefore, Bucy says, fire victims should try to do something active, no matter how small, to take back some control over what the fire has taken from them, whether that project is simply taking care of a pet or making plans to build a new home.

She also recommends getting back into a normal routine and restoring the social and family structure as soon as possible, because isolation can be detrimental as well.

“What you worry about is someone getting stuck in depression,” she explains.

Bucy says she has seen a couple of patients who were evacuated from the Fourmile fire but did not lose their homes, and for them, the period of not knowing what happened to their houses was the hardest part. She says it is normal to feel the stages of grief, like the initial denial that one’s house succumbed to the fire, the anger (“Why me?”) and the bargaining, which often involves trying to make a deal with God.

Bucy says communicating your feelings can help you avoid getting stuck in any one phase of the process.

“It’s good to talk about it with other people,” she says.

“Talking about it and sharing it is not a sign of weakness. That’s part of the process to get through it.”