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How to Help Someone after a House Fire, Really

How to Help Someone after a House Fire, Really

Jul 17 2012
Whether they lost their home to a wildfire or arson (like we did), people need more than an encouraging word.

Our house was still smoking, the day an arsonist randomly set it on fire, when the questions began to pour in. "What do you need?" friends and neighbors started asking. Our family had all been at home and in bed when the fire was set, and we escaped with nothing but my laptop and the clothes on our backs. Yet I couldn't think of how to answer—until I remembered a line from a previous conversation with my neighbor, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time: "Anything anyone does for my kids helps me."

So I began saying, "Gift cards for books. For the children."

I asked our children to list which stores they wanted gift certificates from. I began with our youngest, age 7 at the time. Eden sat down and made the list you see in the photo below (after the jump).


As we stood on the lawn, watching the house burn, she said, "I'm so glad I put most of my money in the bank this week!" We had made a recent trip to the credit union, but she had reserved a quarter.


The night before the fire, we had begun reading Kate DiCamillo's The Tiger Rising, a book about grief and loss.

Then Eden listed,

STRTS (shirts)
SURS (shoes)

Then she added,


That pressed the air out of my chest.

I wept reading over her list. Then I tried to pin her down. (You see my personal list at the bottom of the photo.) "Would you like a gift certificate from Target or from Old Navy?" I was considering actual stores, but Eden got to the heart of her loss.

I pulled myself up. The child had said what she needed, so I gave her a quarter and called my dear friend, Jane, who ran out and bought The Tiger Rising that day. Clothes and books and toys and art supplies and gift cards came flooding in.

My husband, Paul, and I were at first reluctant to accept help. We thought we were fine and figured we would sort out the insurance and financial details on our own. We were mistaken. Not only were we delusional, we also found it surprisingly uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of extraordinary generosity. Wrangling with the township, utilities, and insurance was beyond exhausting. It was only when we moved back into the new house that we began the slow process of mourning the fact that a crime had been committed against us. When we were asked, "What do you need?" I can see now we could have co-opted Eden's list for the entire family: "Please send money, books, clothes and—while you're at it, if you would be so kind—we could really use our old life back."

Immediately after a house fire, a person's needs seem complex, but they're quite simple. Everything narrows and focuses: You need shelter, food, and clothes. In the early days, even our prayers were simple: "Thank you. Thank you." We were just so grateful to be alive.

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How to Help Someone after a House Fire, Really