People lose things every day—a set of keys, a matching sock, or the homework they can't find on their computer—all minor daily frustrations. Not the kind of loss most people need help dealing with. The kind we need help with is the kind of loss that stops your heart, the kind that forever alters the course of your life, that brings you to your knees, or that tries your soul.
On October 20, 1991, that's exactly what happened to a woman we'll call Debbie.
Debbie was twenty-one years old and a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. She lived in a beautiful house in Berkeley's Oakland Hills area with a lovely view of the Bay Area off the back deck. She worked three jobs to afford her rent and tuition, and she carried a full schedule of classes. And for the past three months, she'd been dating a handsome post-doc student from Switzerland we'll call Rafael.
Her life was definitely running at full speed. But she was very happy, and it was only going to get better. She had an ambitious life planned out in five-year installments, starting with completing her degree in archaeology the following May. Then she would be off to graduate school and eventually earn a Ph.D. and become a professor. But that was all still seven months away. She had one semester of school and a nearly completed thesis paper to finish first.
Then, one Sunday morning in October, she got up early to attend a conference outside the city. She and a friend left at 6:30 and drove south across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge to the all-day event. It gave them plenty to talk about on their return trip home at the end of the day. So driving back that evening, they left the radio off. If they'd had it on, what they saw next might not have seemed so strange.
As they got close to San Francisco, they saw a thick, black cloud hanging over the entire Bay Area.
"It was unbelievable," Debbie said. "It looked like San Francisco was turning into Los Angeles with all its smog. So we decided to drive around and use the Golden Gate Bridge instead. My mom and stepfather owned a restaurant in the city, and we were hungry, so we stopped there to eat on the way home. By then, it was probably eight or nine o'clock at night. And these were before the days of cell phones, so we'd been out of touch for an entire day. As soon as we walked in, the staff at the restaurant ran up and said, 'Oh my God, you're alive! Where have you been all day?' "
Debbie and her friend must have looked as confused as they sounded when they responded, "Alive? What are you talking about?"
"Don't you know what's happening? All of Berkeley is on fire!"
She immediately went to the bar next door to see a news report on TV. That's when she learned the fire not only passed through her neighborhood but appeared to have started there. "All I remember thinking is, 'I've got to get to Berkeley.' "
They got back in her friend's car and drove the rest of the way to Berkeley. Her reaction when they got there? "It was in complete chaos, like something out of Dante's Inferno. Nobody knew where to go. There were firemen and police everywhere, people screaming and running in all directions, and cars abandoned in the middle of the street. It was like a scene from a horror movie.
And then somehow, in the middle of this chaos, I ran into Rafael. He was supposed to be at a triathlon that day. But when he heard about the fire, he came to look for me. My housemates didn't know where I was all day either. Everyone thought I had died in the fire."
And that wouldn't have been an unreasonable assumption. Later called the "Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991," the blaze ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. More than 1,500 acres were destroyed, including almost 3,500 homes and apartment units. The total economic loss was estimated at $1.5 billion.
And while Debbie's share of that $1.5 billion was pretty small, it was everything she owned in the world, except for the clothes on her back and $300 in her bank account. She lost all of her family pictures, the rest of her clothing, the artwork she'd traded her time modeling for, her grandmother's jewelry, her computer, her car, and, importantly, her senior thesis she'd spent months working on. She stood there in shock, assessing her loss. It was devastating.
She doesn't even remember where she spent that night. But she does remember who she spent it with. And she remembers what they did. She and Rafael consoled each other the way young people in love do. And as it turned out, among all the loss, fate saw to it that Debbie gained something wonderful on the very night she lost everything else: a son. Two weeks later, Debbie found out she was pregnant.
She said, "As soon as I found out I was pregnant, everything changed. All of my priorities shifted." Debbie married Rafael and moved back with him to Switzerland at the end of the semester, where her son Andy was born.
She ended up coming back to Berkeley when Andy was eighteen months old to complete both her bachelor's and master's degrees before returning to Switzerland. So she got some degree of closure on that part of her life. But having a new child, a husband, and an exciting new life in a different country just after the fire provided Debbie an opportunity to compare two things not many of us get to see so closely juxtaposed in time and place: the role and importance of people and relationships in your life versus the things in your life.
As Debbie explains, "It took me a while to fully appreciate the lessons from that time. But it did teach me a few things. First, you can try to plan your life out. But you can't control everything. Life is the combination of things that happen to us and how we choose to respond to them.
Second, I learned that stuff isn't important. People are. Everything I lost in that fire, that was just stuff. What I gained was far more valuable." The third lesson Debbie learned was that if you do find yourself losing most or all of the "stuff" in your life, it's okay. "Don't fret over lost stuff or things you can't change. Embrace them. Life has a way of working out. More beautiful and meaningful things may come from it," just like they did for her.
Okay, this story has a whole set of difficult topics to cover with children. But when the time is right to talk about them with your child, share this story, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
Have you ever lost anything that was very important to you? What was it? Were you able to get another one?
Has anyone you loved ever died? How did you deal with that?
What do you think Debbie meant by, "Life is the combination of things that happen to us, and how we choose to respond to them"?
How much of all the things you own in the world would you trade to save the life of someone you love?
Okay, in the final lesson, we'll dive into a couple of stories about how families grow and heal after the death of a loved one.