Responding to the Emotional Impact of the Colorado Wildfires

Natural disasters, like the wildfires that we recently experienced here in Colorado, can impact us in ways that we can’t imagine. Losses of this scope strike at the heart of our vulnerabilities as humans at the mercy of nature. Whether the tragedy impacted our homes and family directly or we were witness to the horror unfolding from a distance, we may be more impacted by it than we recognize. With news coverage bringing the images of the destruction and the faces of the survivors into our homes each day, it becomes something very intimate and something very surreal. Each new report adds weight to the story of our human frailty and resilience—the traumatic stories of escape and the heroic rescue efforts, the shock and devastation of losing all worldly belongings in a moment and the generosity of spirit and outpouring of support from neighbors and strangers.

It is important that we recognize and respect how much impact these images and stories may have on us, particularly when they are folded into the rest of the stresses in our lives. No traumatic event happens in isolation; it is received in us as part of the whole of our experience. It is important to be aware of the residual ways we may be impacted that don’t connect directly to these events.

Those who have been personally involved in natural disasters in the past may find themselves retriggered and possibly in need of more active therapeutic assistance to manage their distress.

Natural and Normal Responses to Events Involving Life Loss and Destruction

  • Questioning basic beliefs about everything
  • Intense feelings of all kinds
  • Feelings of general hopelessness, fear, frustration, sadness and/or anger
  • Sense that things feel out of control
  • Sense of loss of safety and security
  • Sleeping and eating disturbances
  • Worsening of pre-existing problems
  • Lethargy
  • Distressing dreams
  • Need for comfort and assurance
  • Desire for structure and regularity

Those who have been personally involved in natural disasters in the past may find themselves retriggered and possibly in need of more active therapeutic assistance to manage their distress.

How can we respond meaningfully and responsibly to an event like this?

Give Yourself Time

It can take time to recover from a traumatic event. It might take a while for you to accept what has happened or to learn to live with it. If someone has died or you have lost something significant to you, you may also need to grieve. Try not to put pressure on yourself to feel better straight away.

Talk about the Event

Research has shown that talking about the event and your feelings can help you to be more resilient. You may find that you want to avoid memories and feelings, but this has been shown to make people feel worse.

Speak to Others that have Experienced the Same Thing as You

It might help you to speak to other people who experienced the same traumatic event as you, or who have had similar experiences. However, people recover and react to the same events in different ways. Try not to compare your own recovery to someone else’s. If you feel able to support others who have been affected by the event, then that can be helpful too.

Ask for Support

Seeking support from friends, family or other people that you trust can help you to cope better after a traumatic event. As well as offering emotional support, they might be able to help you with practical tasks, or just spend time with you doing ‘normal’ things.

Avoid Spending Lots of Time Alone

Being around other people has been shown to increase well being after a traumatic event. While this might not be possible, if you live alone you might want to see if you can move in with family or a close friend after a traumatic event. If this isn’t possible, try to spend more time with people close to you, or stay in contact with them over the phone or through video calls.

Stick to Your Routine

Try to keep to the routine you had before the traumatic event as much as you can, even if that feels difficult. After the event you might find that your eating and exercise habits change, and that you find it hard to sleep. Try to eat and exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Routine and structure help children feel a sense of safety and security as well.

Be Aware of Yourself

After a traumatic event, people are more likely to have accidents. Be careful around the home and when you are driving. Try not to use alcohol or illegal drugs as a way to cope. While they can make you feel better in the short term, they won’t help your recovery in the long term.

Avoid Consuming too Much Media about the Event

After experiencing a traumatic event, especially a high profile event, it can be tempting to watch or read about it on social media or in the news. However, it is best to avoid watching, listening to or reading lots of media related to the event, especially if when you do so it causes you distress. Monitor your children’s TV time and talk to them honestly and age-appropriately about the situation and the things that are being done to help the survivors.

Find Ways to Contribute

Consider what ways you and your family can actively respond and participate in making a difference to the recovery and rebuilding efforts. Despair and depression diminish our ability to feel hope or help ourselves or others; action is the antidote. Make a financial contribution to an organization that you know and trust is helping; donate your time and energy to something that supports the relief efforts. Encouraging children to do something positive relieves anxiety and teaches them productive coping skills. Studies are now showing good wishes, meditation, and prayer can impact the well-being of others so our active and intentional efforts in sending hope and encouragement are also important supports, for ourselves and the direct victims of the destruction.

A key to living with tragedy is balance, allowing the times of sadness to come, and appreciating the moments when we can laugh. There is only one gift that comes out of all major catastrophes and that is the opportunity to remember how unpredictable life is and to use that knowledge to live with more gratitude and consciousness every day.

Please remember that Halcyon at Colorado Visiting Nurse Association Grief Support services are available to you and the larger community as you may be navigating your personal losses through this most recent event.


Colorado VNA Grief Support: 720-325-2987 | |

Boulder Office of Emergency Management Web pages: the most current status updates including information on road closures, emergency response, and evacuations.