The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Health & Family

November 17, 2011

Tornado victims may need help preparing for first holiday season after storm

JOPLIN, Mo. — The next five weeks are often the best and worst of times, with good holiday family moments rubbing shoulders with stress and depression.     But for Joplin residents still reeling emotionally from the May 22 storm, the back-to-back-to-back holidays from now to the end of the year is threatening to create a so-called “piling on” effect.

Hotline calls to Freeman Health System’s Ozark Center more than doubled in the weeks following the storm, from around 500 to more than 1,000 each day. And with the approach of the holiday season, those numbers are again on the rise, now averaging around 700.

Which is why an army of licensed professional counselors are on standby at the Joplin center, available with free and confidential advice to help Joplin residents cope with high stress levels and a holiday season that will be like no other before it.

“It’s important for the community to be aware that this holiday season ready to happen will be different,” said Debbie Fitzgerald, project manager and crisis coordinator at Joplin’s Ozark Center.  

Why?

Because there are very few Joplin families who have not been affected by the EF-5 tornado, whether it’s a loved one lost, a home destroyed, moving the entire family to a new community or a daily drive through the tornado’s path in the center of town.

Instead of shouldering the extra stresses of post-tornado life with the heavy load of the regular holidays -- parties, dinners and presents beneath the tree -- Fitzgerald has some really simple advice to follow.

Slow down “and make the most of this holiday season,” she said. “Take time out for yourself, don’t rush and feel pressured to do everything for everyone. Set limits and really try to save your energies (for the events) you enjoy the most.”

In other words, tackle one day -- or even one task -- at a time.

And instead of trying to duplicate holiday customs from the past that are no longer feasible and would only spur heartache or depression -- duplicating Grandmother Mary’s Christmas dinner inside a single bedroom apartment or FEMA trailer, for example -- try to create new customs that family members can enjoy, Fitzgerald said.

Examples, she said, might include each member of the family making a brand new Christmas ornament; or to watch all three “Santa Claus” movies in a row; or invite neighbors over for homemade cookies -- something small, something new and, above all, something fresh.

One of the most concerning areas, said Stephen McCollum, crisis supervisor for the Ozark Center, is a fear among parents that, because maybe they are uninsured or hit hard by both the economy and storm recovery, there won’t be enough money for parents to purchase gifts for the kids.

“There’s a lot of feelings of pressure to provide for the kids,” McCollum said. “We’ve been talking to them about that, helping them with finding things to do. We tell them instead of presents, perhaps they should do more activities” as a family -- “to shift the focus from the material to the family.”

The key thing to remember here is that this holiday season is going to be a transitional one, and that some holiday experiences will have to be redefined, Fitzgerald said. Most of all, people should remember “it’s OK to be different.”

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