What to say to a victim of the bushfires

This photo taken on January 8, 2020 shows 64-year-old orchardist Stephenie Bailey reacting as she describes the impact bushfires have had on her farm in Batlow. Source: AFP

When someone has lost everything it can be hard to find the right words to say. This professor of psychiatry offers his advice.

Australia is experiencing one of its worst bushfire crisis’ in history. 

In NSW alone over 2000 homes have been destroyed in the blaze. As victims of the fires try to come to terms with what they’ve experienced, Alexander McFarlane, professor of psychiatry at the University of Adelaide, says it’s important we know how to talk to them to provide comfort and assistance.

Anticipate the difficulty

McFarlane explains that people who have been through a traumatic event can often struggle to describe what they’ve experienced and can feel overwhelmed by what’s occurred. Their obvious distress means the listener can have a “tendency to change the topic or move away from the subject because it’s just too painful.”

“People become frightened of the stress people are dealing with, they can’t actually give the person the space to describe what they need and want.”

McFarlane says the listener needs to be willing to “contemplate the awfulness of what’s happened” while not necessarily needing the victim to articulate it. He explains that it’s also important to keep your own emotions at bay so you can just listen.

“If you have a relative who’s been through this [bushfires], or you know someone, anticipate how much they may struggle."

Mallacoota evacuees on navy vessels off Victorian coast.
Navy vessels have evacuated residents hemmed in by fire at Mallacoota in Victoria's East Gippsland.

Be guided by the person

If you are talking to a victim of the bushfires it can be difficult to know if they want to talk about it, if you should ask questions and how many questions to ask.

“There’s a complex balance of completely avoiding it and talking about it too much to people,” McFarlane says.

“The last thing they want to do is feel your voyeuristic interests.”

His advice is to let the person direct the conversation.

“That’s the skills of a good listener, to let the person go where they want to.” 

Judge your relationship

The intimacy of your relationship - whether you're a close friend or an acquaintance - should guide your interactions, McFarlane says.

“If you’re not close to somebody it’s probably best not to intrude too much.”

Know what questions to ask

McFarlane says asking the right questions, instead of trying to give “unsolicited advice” can make all the difference to a victim of the bushfires. Some appropriate questions can be:

  • Would you like to talk about it?
  • Is there any way that I can help with what you’ve been through?
  • Are there any decisions that you’re struggling with making at the moment and is there any way I can assist in helping you problem solve and prioritise? McFarlane says for people who have lost everything and are struggling with the weight of starting again, this question can be particularly useful.

“There’s often this tremendous sense of community outpouring in the immediate aftermath of these events but what happens pretty quickly is that you get community fatigue and everybody sort of disappears over the horizon. That’s when the loneliness and the battles for these people really begins,” McFarlane says.

“So if you’re genuinely committed to somebody this is not something that you just talk about today, this is an issue that you should be willing to observe and anticipate what people are coping with into the future.”

Source SBS Insight

Related Episodes

S2016 E2

Line of Fire