Sandy Cohen, R.N., Roger Cormier, M.A.

Twenty years after a firestorm killed 25 people and destroyed 3,276 homes in the Oakland, California hills, a public wall of 2,000 hand-painted tiles bears witness to peoples’ ability to grieve deep loss and create new life.

Hope and support can transform tragedy to triumph

At some level and frequency, we all dread life’s losses. We witness the physical frailty and deaths of people we love. We imagine a catastrophic financial or personal loss. We want to deny that our identities will ever be jeopardized by career change, retirement or estrangement of a soul mate. We grow weary of weathering challenges to our belief system that has supported us with meaning and hope.

No one can completely understand nor heal anyone else’s unthinkable losses. But often we are reminded that, after sustaining a loss, we can find support, motivation and a way to recovery and new life. Such reminders can help keep scary fates from souring our attitudes. No one else’s story of triumph over disaster can assure us that we can withstand their particular fate. However, their perseverance can inspire us to draw on our inner resources with help from others when faced with our own losses.

Anyone who witnessed the Oakland firestorm’s fury and devastation, and then lived with the aftermath of blackened and leveled hillsides, could not imagine the actual recoveries that are commemorated and celebrated on the painted tiles. Countless people rebuilt homes and continued their lives in a neighborhood and community that meant so much to them.

Today, except for a memorial garden and a pavilion, the thousands of new homes with fresh landscaping make it difficult to imagine a history that was interrupted but not ended by a now long ago fire. Even more encouraging are the stories that many people directly retold or pointed to in the images and messages of the painted tiles at the recent twentieth anniversary of the fire.

Each of us knows people who are living “new” lives after deep, painful losses. We have our own stories of loss, grieving, recovery and new life to remind ourselves and each other that, with help and support, we can move on to new and promising life without erasing all memory of painful losses.

One of the post-fire tiles recalls a family of four’s “shock, loss, sadness, anger” and more, but it added that “We prevail.” An adjacent tile simply declares: “Be happy” and another shares some wisdom in a humorous vain: “Always use your best china.”  

One family's image of loss and recovery

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