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When Mountains Fall into the Heart of the Sea: Part 2

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

The Process of Grief and Healing






As I’ve come to learn over the last four years since the 1/9 Debris Flows in Montecito, there is no timeline for grief. It ebbs and flows and it often takes enormous work to heal. This story picks up in the aftermath of the second anniversary as I found myself walking through an additional and unexpected time of intense trauma, grief, anxiety and the hope I can offer from what I've learned.

 

On the second anniversary, same as the first, I took a prayer walk around one of the hardest hit areas in Montecito, where we had walked about the morning it happened. As I walked I noticed people going about their normal lives, running, walking their dog, driving to work. I caught God asking me, “ Why are you still walking through ruins?”. I seemed to be stuck in the ruins while others were moving on in healthy ways.


Disclaimer: My life and story have been intricately and devastatingly intertwined with victims and survivors of the disaster. There is a fuller story that contributes to the point in which I found myself in the aftermath of interactions on the second anniversary. However, key moments and incidents have been left out and will remain private due to the fact that part of my story also belongs to others and is not fully mine to share.

The night of the second anniversary I knew I’d see survivors at the event I was helping host, including the ones from the house I had previously lived at a few months before the mudslides occurred. I had not seen them since and to be honest, out of deep grief and a difficult situation, I never wanted to see again.

When I had a moment to finally speak with them the first thing that they said was, “I’ve thought about you a lot since all that happened and I thank God that you weren’t in the house with us that night”. The most gracious and loving thing someone could say in that position after all they had been through and lost. It was a moment of release, a moment where everything said was exactly what anyone would want to hear.


The weekend passed heavily as I found freedom and even deeper grief from my time spent with the survivors. On Monday a friend pointed me towards a message that the same person posted on Facebook. They talked about how good it was to see me, and thanked me for helping with the event and then confirmed something I had long knew in my heart but not in reality. When I had left their house prior to the mudslide, their oldest child had moved back into my room and that’s where they had been the night of the mudslide. They had not survived. Somehow I had known deep down in my heart that had been the case when I heard about the news about the house and family two days after the mudslides, but no one had ever confirmed or communicated that. Hearing the truth confirmed and seeing it written out broke me wide open that day.

I called my parents who tried their best to calm me down and get ahold of the grief ripping through my body. They reminded me God had saved me and I was here for a purpose. While my faith has always been a strong pillar of my life, those words felt like band aids over a bullet wound, especially when I couldn’t fathom that these words had not been true for the people in the house that night. Something extremely dark, scary and all consuming broke open in me that day. I was drowning in waves of emotions, grief and anxiety. I saw no bottom and no way to break to the surface.


The next week I met with my counselor and we started doing the hard work of unpacking it all. Interestingly enough, even though I had been working with a counselor for the past eight months I had never talked about my experience with the mudslides. By all my accounts I thought I was fine. In secret I knew I was still battling waves of emotions, nightmares, anxiety and overwhelming sadness, but I thought it was normal and nothing to acknowledge when so many people around me had lost so much and I had been spared.


When I finally confessed all that was bottled up inside of me she helped me fill out a worksheet. After tallying my responses, she told me I rated as “severe” on a scale for PTSD. Sounds dumb to say, but I was shocked. This could not be me. I was functioning, I was fine, I went to work, hung out with my friends and had a fulfilling life.

We hear a lot about survivors guilt, this defines someone who went through the event and feel guilt that they survived or that they couldn’t do more to save others. While I was in Montecito that night and had some incredibly difficult ties to victims and survivors, I wasn’t in the mud, so this description never felt right to me and severe PTSD was definitely something I did not want to accept. However, both labels probably accurately defined what my body was already trying to communicate to me.


My counselor did some research and found a study conducted after 9/11 on a unique type of trauma called "near misses". The study focused on the people who should have been on the planes that day, but missed their flight because they slept through an alarm, or someone who should have been in one of the buildings but woke up sick and never went into work. An almost moment. Untouched, but completely overwhelmed with the proximity. This resonated with me deeply.

We spent the next few months taking apart and putting back together my experiences surrounding the disaster and connection with the survivors and victims. We defined emotions and connected them to time. One interesting thing to note: I was having trouble processing everything because I was not able to define and assign emotions to each experience that had occurred leading up to, during and after the mudslides, it was all one big jumble of crossed wires in my brain. Thus, any time I had to confront the experience (which was soften as I still lived and worked in Montecito) I basically went into an internal melt down (heavy emphasis on internal because no one around me had any idea).


I had barley any memories of my life the three months after the mudslide and was not connecting the significant memories I had before the mudslides to the emotions that had compounded my grief afterwards. Once we built timelines, labeled emotions and connected them to experiences I could finally articulate and feel my way around the darkness, I could tread easier as the bottom came into focus and I could reach the surface.


I learned to vocalize the silent haunting of “what ifs” and let go of the questions that were never going to change what had happened early that morning in Montecito. For the first time I gave myself grace to feel my own emotions deeply and permission to validate them. I stopped comparing and measuring the what I considered the“smallness” of my trauma to those around me as an excuse that, “I was fine”.


Healing takes time, it's a continual process that I and the entire Montecito community are still working through. I’ve come to learn and accept the fact that the body keeps record of trauma . Like clockwork, the headaches, nausea, anxiety, irritability and all around heaviness hit the first week of January. The grief bubbles back up intensely and my routine drive through “ground zero” on the way to work becomes something to avoid. Instead of soldiering on, I try to let the emotions come and I accept them. I give myself time and space to feel and also to take care of my body. All of this then allows me to look outside myself and care for our wider community around me. I've gone to college, lived and worked in the Montecito for eight years now and I have yet to see a group of people step up and take care of each other as I've seen in this community.

This year we hosted a virtual event (due to COVID) to commemorate the fourth anniversary. After all I’ve worked through the past few years I find one of the most healing and healthy places for me to be is involved with it. I spent January 9 with our amazing community leaders and first responders. It was a night of being together, hearing each unique story, validating emotions, grief and raising our light over Montecito, declaring what I and the Montecito community know to be true: hope and healing are possible. We must give ourselves time and grace and be willing to acknowledge, validate and do the work as we continually walk that journey. Mourning may come in the night, but joy will come in the morning.






 

I've held these pictures close to myself the past few years, it's some of what I saw the morning of January 9. Many of them point to the specific scenes I described in my initial writing on the events.


The glow of the fire on the hillside around 3:40 a.m. on January 9 , the first indication that something was wrong. I went outside of my house to take this picture in the pouring rain, unaware that it was a fire caused by a ruptured gas line from the boulders rolling down the hillside, the next street over on Olive Mill.


6:00 a.m. January 9, we walked down our street towards the creek and encountered mud and a mangled kitchen sink.


Light broke and the devastation started coming into focus.


National guard vehicles on our street evacuating survivors.


The magnitude of destruction comes into focus. This is the main intersection down our street, Olive Mill Road where the debris flow jumped the creek and went down to cover 101 freeway and into the ocean at Butterfly Beach. You can see one house is still standing in the corner, but there are no traces of the multiple other homes that once sat in this area.


A field of "small" boulders that showcase what was left over where houses once stood.

Debris the morning after, you can see a refrigerator and a section of a roof.

Olive Mill intersection four years later. One house has started to rebuild, other empty lots only have traces of boulders leftover, with grass and wildflowers blanketing the ground.


Working on Raising Our Light virtual event for the fourth anniversary, with the most incredible group of people.




Abe Powell: community leader, co-founder and CEO of nationally renown non-profit The Bucket Brigade, a group of volunteers who have spent the past four years digging homes and community areas out of the mud.

Sharon Byrne: Executive Director of Montecito Association

Chief Taylor of Monotecito Fire

Christina Favuzzi: Public Information Officer for Montecito Fire






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