As stated in my book, there is no manual written how to pick up your life and thrive again after suffering a traumatic loss like a major home fire. Many to all of one’s basic life staples, that one has grown to rely on and see as a basic staple of life, are now gone. What does one do to get one’s life back to “normal”?
Each person’s fire story is different, and I do not want this page to be seen as a catch all document that provides an “all you will ever need to know and do to negotiate a post fire recovery” road map. But, let me share some lessons learned that hopefully will at least get you on the right track, right frame of mind to begin to pick up the pieces and thrive again.
Here are two important things to remember,
- This too shall pass. All these things/possessions that are now gone and needed to sustain one’s life, are gone yes, but this situation is only temporary.
- Stuff is only stuff. Don’t sweat the stuff. Stuff can be replaced. We all have too much stuff anyway. The world, remarkably, does not end because suddenly we have less stuff to worry about and clutter up our lives.
First Steps to do after a fire:
The list may seem long, but you can do this! We did it so know it is doable. God bless you and your family and know God is with you and working through you for things you may never realize.
- Pick a good friend to spend that first day with. If your fire happens at night, to get a little sleep after the fire is out and the fire department equipment heads home.
- As soon as possible, contact your home insurance company to start your claim. Their first step should be to send an agent with your first living expenses check. This check is immensely important to you, because this begins your first step back. You have funds now to do things like reserve a hotel room for you and family – to get a roof over your head once again.
- Pick a center of operations, recommended in near vicinity of your damaged home. People will want to find you to help out. You will want to be in the area to coordinate the clean up and demolition/renovation of the damaged residence. You will also need to provide your employer, family and friends a way to contact and visit you.
- Contact your place(s) of employment to ask for time off. You will need time to first, decompress with your family, and then there is a lot of work to do to get basic living arrangements secured, like finding a more long-term temporary housing arrangement. You would need at least a week, but I took 2 weeks off and did not waste a day of it.
- As soon as you receive your insurance claim number and claim adjustor contact information, call him/her. Confirm the steps that you and they need to take to get the claim completed. The process will most likely be divided into 3 segments:
- The house claim itself
- Personal belongings (Big job: need to compile a list of all possessions lost/damaged in the fire along with the best estimate of each’s $ value)
- If cars were damaged in the fire, that becomes a second claim through your auto insurance policy. (That is correct. Even though the car may have been parked in the garage, the car claim is still handled as an auto insurance claim.)
- In that first call with the adjuster, ask to describe the process to clean up and secure the property until the home rebuild begins. Most likely, the property is a mess with possessions tossed out on the lawn. Outside and inside of the house are a mess and dangerous for others/adventurers curious to explore or try to find hidden treasures. The adjuster should be able to provide you with a list of salvage company options to clean up the property. Make sure to get the OK from the insurance adjuster prior to initiating the cleanup. In our case, there was another damaged home involved. If that is the case, your insurance company should consult any other insurance companies involved, or even police (e.g. if possible arson or other foul play at hand) to confirm of any fire cause investigations are planned. Things got quite exciting when our salvage company showed up and started removing items from our property. This was not our fault. Our insurance company failed to touch base with the neighbor’s insurance company.
- Contact and cancel all your utilities used for home – gas, electric, cable-internet, land line phone (if you have one), news paper (again, if you have one), water, etc. Make provisions with the Post Office (e.g. get mail delivered to a PO Box).
- As soon as possible, after given the clearance from the firemen to do so (confirm safe to enter), do a walk-through of your home to search for any and all possessions that survived the fire. Be thorough and be careful. As we found, things in drawers and inside of cabinets remarkably survived where things directly outside were charred and melted.
- Celebrate the things found. Especially celebrate the little miracles – those things that you were sure were lost, no reason why they would not be lost, but here they are!
- Celebrate life. I pray that your fire or home loss was like ours – we all walked away safely. God has other plans for you and your surviving family members. See the hand of God that saved the day for you.
- If life was lost, well, I do not have a personal experience to help with the grief of that profound loss. I pray for your heavy loss. Again, a bitter sweet thing, but celebrate the life you still do have and celebrate the good memories of your lost loved one(s). Talk to a priest or minister about God’s love he has for you, your surviving family members and lost loved one(s) as well.
- Get your surviving things cleaned. They are probably wet, full of soot, and saturated with smoke. Your insurance adjuster will have a company they normally employ for you to use to clean and get the smoke smell out. The company we used employed an Ozone system that sanitized and removed the smoke smell. From experience, the smoke smell is something that one cannot wash out with standard washer or cleaning product means, no matter how many times the item is rewashed.
- Suggestion: contemplate hiring a lawyer. Insurance companies tend to try to find entities to sue to recover any part of the claim $’s, paid to you, that they can possibly recover. If there is any possibility of negligence from you or a family member to the cause or extent of the fire loss, the insurance company (or other insurance company(s) involved) may come back at you. In our case, our fire happened the night of the 4th of July. There were questions asked as to firework usage. Luckily, we were able to prove that we had no fireworks. I believe by hiring a good lawyer, we actually increased our claim $’s received, and definitely reduced hassles and lowered our risks – money well invested/spent.
- Find a longer term temporary residence to provide housing until you are able to move back into your repaired/rebuilt home or other purchased residence. Recommend working with a realtor. You will find the best option and in the quickest that way. You may be able to get the realtor office to donate their services considering your dire conditions.
- Rent furniture for your temporary apartment/house etc. We purchased beds but rented everything else. If your living conditions were similar to ours, our temporary housing arrangement was considerably smaller and different than what our eventual permanent house was. It is best not to buy furniture that fits the temporary residence but does not fit the new home. Besides, insurance should pick up the tab for any furniture rentals – as well as the rental for your temporary residence (check your policy).
- Play the insurance game. Again, recommend employing a lawyer to guide and advise to insure this goes as smoothly as possible and you get all proceeds that you are eligible. Be ready for a marathon rather than a sprint. Our claim took 11 months to finally run its course.
- Decide if you will move back into your rebuilt home or buy another house and sell the rebuilt one. In our case, with our young family involved, our decision was to sell the rebuilt home and buy another. We were concerned if living in the rebuilt house, that we fled from, would be sources of anxiety and nightmares for the kids. That was our decision. Make your own with your own set of circumstances.
- Enjoy your new residence and celebrate. If you can survive this (and you will), you can do anything! Do something great! Maybe even write a book about your experience.
Now, let’s go through a few Do’s and Don’ts about surviving one’s fire journey.
First, here are a few things that can be done ahead of time to be ready for your fire story:
- Take annual pictures/video of your house, especially each room and the contents in each room. If you ever have to go through the process to make a list of things lost/damaged, can then have a much easier and more objective way to make that list. Your pictures could then be utilized to be helpful for any type of loss claim – fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, home theft etc.
- Get involved in your church and other civic and professional volunteer activities. Although this should not be the real reason that one should engage in volunteer service, volunteering does open up a host of other communities to develop close friendships and organization relationships that will become vital to provide aid to you and your family if ever needed. Volunteer involvement goes both ways of course. It provides conduits/the challenge for you to provide charity and mercy to others in need as well. As mentioned in the book, you never know how many friends you have until a tragedy happens for true friends to rise to the top.
- Never refuse any act of charity. Embrace your community. The Holy Spirit has awakened the generosity of your community through your tragedy. It is just as important, or more, for the person’s soul to participate in your endeavor by providing his/her mode of charity to you and your family as it is for you to receive it.
- Be appreciative for everything received. Clothes, shoes and other items given are to be seen as a stop gap measure, lovely gifts. These items are to be worn and enjoyed until new items can be afforded and purchased. In our case, we had nothing. We never appreciated these taken for granted items more than the days when we received these lovely acts of charity. We wore the shoes and clothes even though they did not completely fit or match our fashion personality, but they were the most beautiful things to us at the time. We wore them proudly.
- See the beauty of the world. If not, you will spiral into pity. Even with all the tragedy that just befell you and family, the sun rises the next day. Life goes on. Celebrate life. Celebrate that you are able to take another breath and experience God’s beautiful world again and again. The Lord is not done with you yet. He has great things planned for you and family.
- If the insurance process starts to move to a place that feels out of control, search for help. Find a lawyer. Don’t put your family in a bad position that grows the tragedy even wider.
- You will probably go through at least one round of questions from the insurance company to describe what happened. Remember to stick with the facts. Don’t embellish or propose hypothetical causes or actions. Those only unnecessarily open doors where you do not want to go. Stick to the facts – what did you see, feel, smell and hear. If a yes or no question is asked. Answer with your yes or no. If they want any further information, they will ask it. If a question is asked that you are unsure of the answer, it is perfectly acceptable to answer, “I do not know”.
- Let God in! You can and will survive this ordeal, but you need God’s help. He may have grander plans for your tragedy. He may be working through you and family, through your fire, to enflame others to come to a closer relationship with Jesus.
- Relish how truly wealthy you are – not in worldly things, but of all the infinite gifts that God has so lovingly given – family, friends. I pray that you will discover, as we did, that you have many more true friends than you ever anticipated. Friends willing to go out of their way to show their love, their charity. That week after our fire, I was the wealthiest man on earth. Wow, what a feeling!
- It is difficult, humiliating one might say, to be on the other side of charity. Resist the impulse to go it alone; to think that you can handle this thing by yourself. This is bigger than you. It is your turn to be the needy one. Embrace your role given and do it with love and joy. Be a survivor.
- Don’t see yourself as lacking or less of worth through this process. Do not see the people, coming to provide their charity, as “better than you” because they are “worldly wealthier” than you are, and you are needy. They have the means to share their wealth with you. We all are children of God. We are all beautiful in God’s eyes. Look at it as you are providing a wonderful service to the charitable – giving them a means to receive boundless amounts of graces they need for their own personal salvation; giving the community a Godly shot in the arm; making our world a better place through your tragedy.
- Don’t wait to touch all the bases in the insurance process. Ask questions to make sure what needs to be done and confirm you are not leaving any gaps or bases uncovered. Every loss situation and insurance policy is different. Make sure you thoroughly understand both to insure to minimize the snags (and there will be snags). The two things to address upfront and quickly – get insurance claim started, and maintain safety (get property cleaned up and secured). Those are two things that can evolve into catastrophe if not done, performed seriously and with full attention.
- Don’t become discouraged. Be prepared for a long haul and hope for a quick resolution. The insurance and rebuilding process is a roller coaster ride – full of ups and downs, hurry ups and waiting, satisfaction and disappointment. Again, it took us almost a year to get everything taken care of. You will use personal skills and traits that you never thought you had or could have. Do not give up. You can do it!