As the survivors of Grenfell Tower will be finding out, rebuilding your life when you’ve lost everything takes a while. After the initial shock wears off, and you’re left with nothing – literally nothing – what do you do?
There are both practical and emotional hurdles to overcome. Three people to whom it has happened have spoken to the BBC.
Maria De Vita
When Maria De Vita heard glass smashing at her home in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, she thought it was someone outside doing a spot of late-night recycling. She later discovered it was one of next door’s windows exploding in a fire in which her neighbour died.
Ms De Vita woke her two young daughters and they left the house with nothing. The girls even had to go to school the next day dressed only in their pyjamas.
“The school was so kind, they gave them some spare bits of uniform,” says Ms De Vita, who did not have any contents insurance.
“Everything has gone. Just gone. We’ll have to start from the beginning again.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very appreciative of the fact we’re all here and alive. But dealing with the aftermath is horrendous.
“We stayed with various friends for a bit, and now I’ve got housing benefit and we’re in a B&B 40 miles away from our hometown. It would take the kids four hours each way to get to school, so they’re not going at the moment.
“We’re staying in a quite a rough area and my kids were threatened when I took them to the park, so we don’t want to go out. They’ve both been affected. They’re clingy, and we can’t talk about the fire as it upsets them so much. They have taken to calling it ‘erif’ – which is ‘fire’ backwards – and can’t speak the word fire aloud.
“I suppose we’re managing because we have no choice, but to be honest, we’re struggling. We will make it but I can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“People have been so generous – one lady offered me a sofa – but because we don’t have anywhere to live I have to turn down offers of help.
“On the one hand, it’s restored my faith in humanity, but then I have to reject their kindness.
“All I want is to go home.”
Our homes and belongings tell the story of who we are, where we’ve been, and the people we love.
Research into the psychology of ownership has shown that we come to see our possessions as extensions of ourselves. We place more value in something just as soon as we own it, and at a neural level, when we think about our stuff, the same regions light up in our brains as when we think about ourselves.
Although it may seem trivial to worry about physical objects in the context of such a tragic loss of human life, when disaster survivors lose their homes and belongings, they often experience a profound sense of personal bereavement, as if a part of their “selves”, their identity, their story, has gone forever.
This is especially likely to be the case for any possessions that have come to be imbued with personal meaning, such as gifts received from loved ones, items acquired on cherished holidays, or family heirlooms.
Indeed, part of the reason that many of our things mean so much to us is that we think about them in an almost magical way – for instance a gift from a loved one may feel as if it is imbued with the essence of that person, such that a physical replica would be no substitute.
This magical thinking may also apply to the home itself, especially if it is filled with poignant memories of family events that have taken place there.
Dr Christian Jarrett, editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest
Michelle Drew’s home in Bath went up in flames in May. She was in her house with her three children when a fire started in her autistic son’s sensory tent. The fire spread to the nearby sofa and blind, across the living room and eventually the whole house.
She and the children all escaped the fire without physical injury but lost all of their possessions.
“We just had the clothes were were standing in,” Mrs Drew says. “We didn’t even have shoes on. I just stood outside the house and watched the fire go up through the roof.
“We were without anything. We lost our home. We had nowhere to live.”
Fortunately, the family had insurance, but until some money was released, they made do with what other people gave them and lived with friends and family.
Valuables such as jewellery and her husband’s extensive film collection were destroyed, along with sentimental items including a hospital scan of a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.
But the main impact has been on the children.
“With autism, routine and ritual is so important. My son really had problems dealing with any changes. I mean, he couldn’t cope with having a new pair of shoes and here we were telling him he’s got a new house and all of his clothes and toys are gone. He’s really feeling the effects of it – it’s chaos.
“We’re in a new home now but he’s still suffering – he’s badly behaved, has sensory problems and is really destructive. But everyone’s been really great, his school has been really helpful.
“My youngest daughter has hypermobility syndrome and has difficulty getting about – and someone gave us a pushchair. My other daughter needed asthma medication and the head teacher of her school came and opened up especially so we could get the medicine from the supply she keeps at school.”
Mrs Drew says it took a couple of weeks for the impact to hit her: “The reality of what could have happened is terrifying. I’m just grateful my kids are alive.”
Does she have any advice for people who may find themselves in a similar situation?
“Surround yourself with people who care about you. Concentrate on what you’ve got. Try not to think of what you’ve lost, no good will come of that.
“But you know, the thing that will stick with me is the kindness we experienced. Everyone was fantastic. People went out of their way to help, not just on the day it happened but for weeks afterwards.”
Martin Sigston lost all of his belongings in a fire just before Christmas in 2001.
“There was shock and horror and emptiness. When you see your home on fire it’s partly panic but at the same time you know you can’t do anything.”
When the Grenfell Tower fire happened, he was moved to post some advice on his Facebook page, letting people know the best ways they could help survivors.
Speaking from experience, Mr Sigston pointed out that the things people need are not always obvious.
“It’s a daily grind. You’re trying to organise yourself and you don’t even have basic things like a pen and paper. And you need something to carry it in.
“And there are things you’ve lost that you don’t remember until you need them, and it all really adds up. It sounds silly and petty, but even things like ink cartridges for printers need to be replaced.
“I was insured, but it was still a nightmare. Very difficult. Some of my friends said it could be exciting and a new start. I remember standing in the middle of Ikea and just being too drained, I didn’t know where to begin.
“The thing is, I didn’t want new furniture or a big TV. I just wanted my own stuff.
“It’s like being bereaved. You don’t actually get over it but you learn to live with it. It’s a long slog, but it does get easier.
“If anyone was in my position I’d say: ‘Just let it go, It’s gone.
“It’s really tough but you’ll get there’.”
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