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How do you mourn the loss of a home that no longer exists?

Crews are working in Slave Lake, Alberta, shutting of gas and water in burned out neighbourhoods on Wednesday May 18, 2011. A wildfire swept through the town of 7,000 destroying upwards of 40% of the buildings.

Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press

Smashed portraits, meat from a tumbled freezer, a pet ferret: Residents of Joplin, Mo., scrambled to retrieve what they could from the splintered remains of their homes on Sunday.

Images show families and neighbours helpless and hugging among a vast, tangled mess of homes and shredded trees, overwhelmed by the damage wrought by a single tornado that barrelled in at 300 kilometres per hour, measuring nearly a mile across.

The scene was grim, too, for residents of Slave Lake, Alta., as they toured past homes and cars charred by forest fires that made an ashy wasteland of their community last week.

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Grieving for one's home, something most of us will never experience, is a special category of hell.

"When the imminent threat is gone, people start to think about what has happened. They start to count all the losses and that's when they typically break down," says Alain Brunet, chair of the Canadian Psychological Association's traumatic stress division.

During an "inventory phase," some collect mementoes, while others hunt for their taxes: "Some people will be more pragmatic and other people will approach from a more emotional point of view, looking for teddy bears and things like that," says Dr. Brunet, who is also a psychiatry professor at McGill University.

Some victims will "disassociate" while others will become depressed or angry, especially if they feel rescue efforts failed them. Many will feel overwhelmed as they're forced to face stressors such as insurance and temporary living conditions, while others will experience hyper-vigilance: "Once bitten, twice shy," he adds. Fewer still may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder: Women are more at risk here, as are children, who crave routine in chaos.

"It's very hard to return to a routine if your home isn't there any more," he says.

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