Dealing with Loss: The Great Berkeley Fire of 1991

Dealing with Loss: The Great Berkeley Fire of 1991

People lose things every day—a set of keys, a matching sock, or the homework they can’t find on their computer—all minor daily frustrations. Not the kind of loss most people need help dealing with.

The kind we need help with is the kind of loss that stops your heart, forever alters the course of your life, brings you to your knees, or that tries your soul.

On October 20, 1991, that’s exactly what happened to Dejah. Dejah was twenty-one years old and a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. She lived in a beautiful house in Berkeley’s Oakland Hills area with a nice view of the Bay Area from the back deck. That turned out to be a much nicer study spot than her bedroom, which was nothing more than a converted storage closet.

She had to work three jobs to pay her rent and tuition, and she carried a full schedule of classes. And for the past three months she’d been dating a handsome young man from Switzerland named René. Her life was definitely running at full speed. But she was quite happy, and it was only going to get better. She had an ambitious life planned out in five-year increments. It started with finishing her degree in archaeology the following May. Then she would go off to graduate school and eventually earn a Ph.D. and become a professor. But that was all still seven months away. She had one semester of school and a nearly completed thesis paper to finish first.

Then, one Sunday morning in October, she got up early to go to a conference outside the city. She and a friend left at 6:30 and drove south across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge to the all-day event. It was a long drive, so, on the way home at the end of the conference, they had plenty of time to talk about what they’d learned. So they left the radio off and just talked. But if they’d listened to the radio, what they saw next might not have seemed so strange.

As they got closer to San Francisco, they saw a thick, black cloud hanging over the entire Bay Area. Dejah said, “It was unbelievable. It looked like San Francisco was turning into Los Angeles with all its smog. So we decided to drive around and use the Golden Gate Bridge instead. My mom and stepfather owned a restaurant in the city, and we were hungry, so we stopped there to eat on the way home. By then it was probably eight or nine o’clock at night. And these were before the days of cell phones, so we’d been out of touch for an entire day. As soon as we walked in, the staff at the restaurant ran up and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re alive! Where have you been all day?’ ”

Dejah and her friend just said, “What are you talking about?”

Don’t you know what’s happening? All of Berkeley is on fire!”

Dejah ran to the bar next door to see a news report on TV. That’s when she learned the fire not only passed through her neighborhood but appeared to have started there. “All I remember thinking is, ‘I’ve got to get to Berkeley.’”

They got back in her friend’s car and drove the rest of the way to Berkeley. Here’s how she described what she saw when she got there: “It was in complete chaos, like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Nobody knew where to go. There were firemen and police everywhere, people screaming and running all over the place, abandoned cars in the middle of the street. It was like a scene from a horror movie. And then somehow, in the middle of this chaos, I ran into René. He was supposed to be at a triathlon that day. But when he heard about the fire, he came to look for me. My housemates didn’t know where I was all day either. Everyone thought I had died in the fire.”

And that wouldn’t have been an unreasonable assumption. Later called the “Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991,” it ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. More than 1,500 acres were destroyed, including almost 3,500 homes and apartment units. The total economic loss was estimated at $1.5 billion. And while Dejah’s share of that $1.5 billion was tiny, it was everything she owned in the world, except for the clothes on her back and $300 in her bank account.

She lost all of her family pictures, the rest of her clothing, the artwork she’d traded her time modeling for, her grandmother’s jewelry, her computer, her car, and, importantly, her senior thesis she’d spent months working on. She stood there in shock, assessing her loss. It was devastating.

She doesn’t even remember where she slept that night. But she does remember who she spent it with. And she remembers what they did. She and René consoled each other the way young lovers do. And as it turned out, among all the loss, fate saw to it that Dejah gained something wonderful on the very night she lost everything else. Two weeks later, Dejah found out she was pregnant.

“I’ve always been an advocate of a woman’s right to choose,” she told me. “So if you’d asked me earlier what I would do if at twenty-one I end up with an unplanned pregnancy, I’d have told you I’d have an abortion. But I didn’t. And I never even considered it. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, everything changed. All of my priorities shifted.”

Dejah married René and moved back with him to Switzerland at the end of the semester, where her son Alex was born.

She ended up moving back to Berkeley when Alex was eighteen months old to finish both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees before returning to Switzerland. So she got some degree of closure on that part of her life. But having a new child, a husband, and an exciting new life in a different country just after the fire gave Dejah an opportunity to compare two things not many of us get to see so closely juxtaposed in time and place: the role and importance of people and relationships in your life versus the things in your life.

As Dejah explains, “It took me a while to fully appreciate the lessons from that time. But it did teach me a few things.

  • First, you can try to plan your life out. But you can’t control everything. Life is the combination of things that happen to us and how we choose to respond to them.
  • Second, I learned that stuff isn’t important. People are. Everything I lost in that fire, that was just stuff. What I gained was far more valuable.”
Dejah and son, Alex, at his college graduation.
  • The third lesson Dejah learned was that if you do find yourself losing most or all of the “stuff” in your life, it’s okay. “Don’t fret over lost stuff or things you can’t change. Embrace them. Life has a way of working out. More beautiful and meaningful things may come from it,” just like they did for her.

But even if you’re not as fortunate as Dejah to gain a new family at the moment you lose your things, you will gain a similar perspective. Because having everything you own destroyed leaves you with only the people and relationships in your life to hold on to. That’s when you’ll learn how very important they are. You’ll realize that you’re much better off losing the things in your life and keeping the people than keeping all your stuff and losing even one person you love.

As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

1. Have you ever lost anything that was very important to you? What was it? Were you able to get another one?

2. Has anyone you loved ever died? How did you deal with that?

3. What do you think Dejah meant by “Life is the combination of things that happen to us, and how we choose to respond to them”?

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Source: Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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