BLOG: Reflections in the field #1

New Zealand Red Cross staff

The PS Centre has asked Jolie Wills, Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor for New Zealand Red Cross, to share her experiences in and impressions of psychosocial recovery work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

Disaster recovery akin to first-time parenthood?

Kia ora from New Zealand! Having led the psychosocial recovery for two years for New Zealand Red Cross in earthquake-impacted Canterbury, my current preoccupation is with exploring how to support those working in long-term disaster recovery.

Shining the spotlight on the people embedded and working to support recovery within their communities, often without adequate resources and recognition for all they do, is incredibly important. Unlike deployed personnel, the majority of these individuals are local to the area. If we are to ensure communities receive the support they need, then we need to recognize and support the supporters.

With this in mind, I have recently been awarded and completed a Winston Churchill Fellowship and was incredibly fortunate to visit other communities and organizations in Australia, Japan, Europe and the U.S. earlier this year. I was eager to learn how we support those who are working to support long-term recovery, often whilst being impacted themselves, and am indebted to the multitude of remarkable people I met on my journey who were willing to share their experiences and knowledge relating to disaster recovery.

The amalgamation of these precious insights, reflections and ideas on how to support those with a role in recovery is reflected in my report, ‘Supporting the supporters’, which can be downloaded from www.supportingthesupporters.org. It is my hope that the voices and wisdom of the contributors shine through and, in doing so, usefully inform how we care for supporters.

So what are the realities of working in disaster recovery? This may sound odd, but it strikes me that working in recovery is a lot like first-time parenthood; where one embarks on a journey that will be both meaningful and stressful. Nothing can really prepare you for the relentlessness, sleeplessness, exhaustion, anxiety and, hopefully, satisfactions.

Most people who work in disaster recovery are working within their own communities and, more often than not, have not walked this path before, myself included. And so together we embark into, what is for us, unchartered territory, meeting challenges that are complex and novel, stretching our creative thinking abilities and chasing a forever moving and morphing target.

As with parenting, just when you think you have finally worked out the solution to the current challenge, a new one presents itself. What works today may be irrelevant next month or next year. And, truth be told, as satisfying as this work can be, it also has the potential to be downright scary. I have found myself over the last three years perched on a precarious seesaw teetering between excitement and terror.

Not having done this before, how would we (parents or recovery workers) know for sure whether we are up to the task? In reality, we don’t until we come out the other end, whatever or whenever that may be. And so, entrusted with this role, we want to prove we are capable. Given this pressure, however, it can be difficult to admit that there are times when the sheer enormity of the task threatens to overwhelm us.

Learning that other parents (or recovery workers) we respect and emulate have faced these same challenges and feelings – that this is an expected and normal part of the process and not in any way a reflection on our capabilities – is of great comfort. This was evident from a conversation I had with a woman working with residents in the temporary accommodations of a tsunami-impacted community near Sendai:

“I do the best I can. I try to make the right decisions, but how do I know what I am doing will be the right thing? I worry. And I have been doubting and blaming myself, and thinking that I am weak. Now you are telling me that other people feel these things too? I realize now that I am human. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”

Just like this woman, parents ruminate over decisions made, or the potential missteps along the way. Meeting people who have shared insights about their decades-long experiences in multiple disasters has made it clear that, as much as we are still learning as we support recovery efforts in places like Canterbury, we have also developed and acquired knowledge through our experiences.

Parenthood and recovery are humbling; both keep us feeling like novices. No matter how far along the path we find ourselves, we are still learning. Sometimes, when the path ahead feels daunting, I have found that it really helps to turn around and look back at how far we have come and how much we have learned. It is empowering to stop, reflect and realize that we too have valid and valuable knowledge to contribute. Savour those achievements and that hard earned knowledge.

No matter how hard we try, we will not always get it right. This does not make us incapable, just human. Besides, have you ever met a perfect parent?