Stillness hung in the air. A crowd of hundreds was completely silent. Although the breeze was cool, and waves slapped back and forth behind us in sunny Santa Barbara, it felt like a blanket of shadow loomed over this group. Three days earlier, the community had lost a husband and wife to a hit-and-run crash. As the vigil continued, person after person rose to the podium, recounting the transformative encounters they had with this couple. Truly, they led a life of dedication and service to those around them. However, this community was not gathered for the sole purpose of remembering. This community was gathered, because the impact of great legacy is often accompanied by the impact of great loss. And that’s why I was there, in a blue vest with the words Community Wellness Team pasted along the back, holding back tears for a couple I had never met.
Over the past seven months in my internship with ICTG, I have had the opportunity to attend a variety of memorial services. In September after the Conception Dive Boat Tragedy, I saw families contributing pictures, candles, and flowers to a makeshift memorial at the harbor. During the one year anniversary of the Borderline Shooting and Woolsey Fire in Thousand Oaks in November, Dr. Kate Wiebe and I attended a dinner designed to bring survivor families together to share their experiences and plan for future support. In early January, myself and another ICTG intern joined the Santa Barbara Community Wellness Team at the two year anniversary of the 1/9 Montecito Debris Flow. Lastly, this February I joined the Community Wellness Team again at a Santa Barbara Community College candlelight vigil for Mr. and Mrs. Corral.
During my weekly debriefings with Dr. Wiebe, we’ve spent a lot of time unpacking the various experiences I’ve had attending such a range of memorials. Memorials give us a way to bring our internal emotions out into the external atmosphere. They give us space to reconstruct traumatic experiences and make meaning in healthy ways. I smiled telling her about the children’s choir at the 1/9 Memorial who sang about hope, with the audience standing to their feet in applause. And yet, memorials can also be places of agony and tension for others. They can be the first space a family or community has to acknowledge their loss and a triggering calendar date for years to come. My stomach sank as I described the silence that had overtaken the crowd at the Corral family’s vigil.
In all of these experiences, I have witnessed the power of gathering together throughout the stages of trauma recovery. Although recovery looks different as time increases, the importance of community stays consistent throughout recovery. Dr. Wiebe has taught me that memorials, vigils, and gatherings of remembrance should continue to have a fluid structure as a community grieves. After the immediate impact of a trauma, a community gathers to regroup. From this event, we hope they emerge with a network of others they know are experiencing similar emotions. We also have the opportunity to point them towards additional support networks, for example spiritual care or something resembling our county’s Community Wellness Team. Primarily though, the concentric circles of support included in this type of gathering will primarily be those directly impacted and some service providers. In my experience, our role of providing emotional, mental, and spiritual care in these circumstances is less about direct counsel. Instead, we offer the gift of presence - something very simple, but so often overlooked in it’s effect.
I have witnessed the power of gathering together throughout the stages of trauma recovery.
A year after a trauma has occurred, the goal of gathering is to re-establish relational markers and remind people of the natural, physiological responses they may undergo during this time. The first year after a trauma is the first time individuals will undergo the reconstruction of their holidays, daily routines, and vacations. Along with the first year marker of a trauma, survivors may also experience the physical and mental shock of the situational difference of today compared to life a year ago. They weren’t recovering at that time last year - they were experiencing the trauma, head on. This can be a very disorienting realization. So, a memorial gathering can help ground a community once again, reminding them that these are all normal experiences as they process and heal.
And after two years? It looks even more different! Dr. Wiebe says those in charge of planning these gatherings must ask themselves: What is the purpose? Who is it for? Who needs it? In these instances, the concentric circles of support may increase. Communities may be more open towards looking to the future and how they will make positive meaning and use of their experience. Maybe a community project emerges, or planning of annual barbeques or dinners, or group therapy efforts. From my observations thus far, these gatherings have been focused around a “look how far we’ve come and how far we can go, together” mentality. Yet, this could look drastically different for a different community, depending on what they determine is most needed. Survivors themselves can offer some of the best feedback of what they need and may feel a sense of empowerment to be included in the planning of gatherings that continue post-trauma, two years and beyond.
I’ve been consistently challenged to rethink the way I approach care and counsel. While I used to think counseling was about knowing the right things to say, I now know it is more about being a humble listener and comforter.
Over the next few months of my internship, I will focus on two areas of collective trauma and healing. First, I will continue to attend and offer psychological first aid with the Community Wellness Team, whenever their services are needed. I will also participate in a series of workshops related to Family Assistance Centers (FAC), continuing to build my knowledge base about FAC’s after assisting at the Conception FAC last September. Second, I will be researching the effects of sexual abuse in churches, and looking at examples of community healing. In all of these experiences, I will carry with me the impactful and humbling lessons I have learned at the memorials I’ve attended over the past few months. It is at these memorials, as I stated in an ICTG email recently, that I’ve been consistently challenged to rethink the way I approach care and counsel. While I used to think counseling was about knowing the right things to say, I now know it is more about being a humble listener and comforter. As I embark on my newest set learning opportunities I look forward to sharing more about them with blog readers in the months to come. If you would like to learn more about memorials, vigils, and the stages of trauma recovery I encourage you review the resources below.
Suggested Further Reading:
Disaster Mental Health Services, by Diane Myers and David F. Wee
Planning a Campus Vigil, a free ICTG tip sheet
Phases of Disaster Chart, a free ICTG resource
The famous pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, once observed, "home is where we start from." Home, whatever it may consist of, largely influences our approach to crises or disasters, as well as our approach to life and the world in general.
Below are some ways to help your home, or the spaces in which you reside, enhance your ability to cope.
Beginning the Day
As much as we like to remind one another that the sun rises, even if behind the clouds, the reality is that the sun does not rise and you do not have to pretend that it is rising behind the clouds in order to help yourself feel better. Rather, the Earth carries you, every evening, to greet the sun in the morning, without you doing anything at all. In gratitude, you can rise to meet it.
Then, greet yourself in the mirror, and, if you live with others, greet those around you. No matter the circumstances in which you may all find yourself, allow your greeting to be a sign of how much you value and care for one another.
Beginning in the morning, strive to do the following throughout the day:
Throughout the Day
Continue to greet people you encounter in ways that express how you value and care for them. Be grateful when others do the same for you. Work with care, and take at least five minute breaks at least every hour to walk around and focus on something else. These breaks actually will help increase your ability to work well, especially in times of stress. Some people find it helpful to set an hourly alarm for themselves.
Mid-day and/or early evening, set aside time to talk with or share a meal with people you care about and who care about you. If they are far away, talk with them on the phone or video.
Ending the Day
Create or recommit to a bedtime routine. Here are some practices you may find helpful:
Creating or recommitting to a regular bedtime routine will help your body feel that it can rely, and relax, into a restful night.
If you are an organizational leader or volunteer leader, you can be encouraging your staff or volunteers to be practicing healthful routines at home and throughout their work days. This can help to increase moral and productivity, and encourage an overall supportive culture.
Talk therapy is important. But, as renowned traumatologist Peter Fonagy points out, it cannot be the only solution to resolving mass attacks or natural disaster events. Fonagy, along with increasingly more experts who study the long term effects of disaster on communities, advocates for cultivating "good relationships" within communities as a form of antibody against potential traumatic impacts from disaster. "If you have good relationships they actually help you assimilate that experience."
What is the essence or character of the kind of "good relationships" that help you assimilate or metabolize adversity? Mainly, reliable care, expressed through language, physical touch, food, space, and ritual. The idiosyncratic displays of these expressions may change from community to community, infused by cultural norms. What determines whether the way they are expressed is "right," is whether the survivor perceives any of these expressions as caring. Which means, the caregiver also must continually observe and adapt as needed.
Who are the caregivers in a community? The ones providing "good relationships" to survivors? They may be family, teachers, neighbors, faith leaders, sport coaches, friends, coworkers, and fellow survivors. Each in their own way, without carrying the full burden of response solely on their own shoulders, contribute to a village of care for survivors.
They help provide the stepping stones known to foster healing and restoration:
Talk therapy is only one, of many, important practices that communities can offer survivors across the long-term trajectory of healing after disaster. Unfortunately, too many communities today are relying on talk therapy as the only way to solve mental health challenges in their community. They miss the caring resources which may exist right in their midst. We can all do more to remind ourselves and those around us of how healing is not only, and cannot only be, a professional task. Rather, it is a communal task, in which talk therapy is one of many proven resources for healing.
What are some of the ways your community is resolving disaster, beyond only talk therapy? Share in the comments below.
On November 30th, 2018 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Anchorage, Alaska. I happened to be at work that morning, on the 17th floor of a building built to withstand such an event. Alaska is home to the largest earthquake ever to hit North America. In 1964, a staggering 9.2 quake shook the ground for over five minutes, causing tragic loss of life and changing the state forever. From that time forward, building codes were put in place so structures could withstand the jolts and waves of an earthquake. My building was built on rollers, allowing it to move, twist, sway and still stand. It stood and I was safe. My life was spared. But it moved, twisted and swayed for well over a minute. While this does not sound like much time, when that minute starts with a jolt of such power that it almost knocks you down, and then the next 70-90 seconds are filled with the creaking, grinding and banging noises of an entire building being wrenched around by wave and after wave of seismic forces that can’t be seen, but most certainly can be felt and heard, that time slows down.
PHOTO: THE WEATHER CHANNEL
I could not have predicted how I experienced those moments. As an Alaskan, I had sat through safety trainings on earthquake readiness, but those trainings only prepare you for what to do, not for how you will feel and how you will act.
My feelings were terror and my actions were prayers yelled aloud, repeated over and over. Then the building stilled, alarms blared, lights flashed and I joined the hundreds of people racing down stairs to safety. The following days, weeks and months were spent communally enduring aftershock after aftershock, both of seismic waves, and emotions. And just as the aftershocks varied in magnitude and intensity, so did the feelings and experiences of everyone I knew.
To be sure, there were many shared emotions. The first days were spent having numerous conversations expressing incredible gratitude that there was no loss of life! We praised building codes and solid infrastructure, while often reflecting on tragic opposite events around the globe. We shared over and over again the stories of where we were and what we did when the quake struck. We shared nervous laughter and more vulnerable tears. We shared how we first got in touch with our children and other loved ones. We expressed our fear and exasperation at the unpredictable relentless aftershocks. We shared how our behaviors had changed. Some of us were sleeping all together in one room, or moving to the basement to feel safer. We were checking in on neighbors we didn’t know. We were having spontaneous conversations with strangers in the grocery store aisle, telling our stores and listening to others. We shared. And we shared. And we shared.
I had sat through safety trainings on earthquake readiness, but those trainings only prepare you for what to do, not for how you will feel and how you will act.
And by sharing, we began to heal.
Shared trauma can bring a community together. It has a way of rearranging society, pushing essential elements of survival to the forefront. In much worse tragedies, those elements are very basic. They are food, water, power, medical care…etc.
In Alaska, we were lucky and we knew that, but we also needed to heal. And that healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many. For those that had experienced the 1964 quake, their terror was much greater. Many were surprised by the intensity of their reactions, believing that they had long healed from this early childhood trauma, only to have numerous triggered memories and emotions. Many expressed frustration that they were not able to “get over” this event. This “emotional self judging” was pervasive, with people of all ages and experiences questioning how they were feeling.
Honest sharing is what helped. Many were comforted by the words of our Governor and Mayor, both of whom quickly and publically spoke to their own feelings of fear for themselves and their families. Another public official, interviewed on the news the night of the quake stated, “We have all gone through a terrifying thing which might cause or trigger mental health issues. This is o.k. It is to be expected. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even though it appears damage was not catastrophic, this was no small thing.”
Sharing these words with an anxious public was important. It was validating and encouraging. It allowed people to keep sharing honestly and to seek further help if needed. And this encouragement needed to be ongoing, and continues today. Alaskans experienced several months of strong aftershocks, and it was incredibly helpful to have officials, mental health professionals, and friends continue to name how difficult this was for all of us. Being able to share that trauma, without fear of someone expressing the need to “get over it,” was empowering. When those negative sentiments were unfortunately shared, often through social media, the public outcry was swift. Many more voices were validating the difficulty of what we were experiencing, and encouraging people to keep sharing.
Communities care for one another by sharing. Communities experiencing trauma may need to share more. This sharing might be in the form of basic needs, and incredible generosity is often seen during times of much greater tragedy. However, generous sharing can also be the validation of a vast range of emotions and making available safe spaces to process and recover. These safe spaces can be formal or informal. Therapists and trauma counselors reported high numbers of individuals and families reaching out for help. School counselors and teachers took ample time in classrooms, encouraging children to tell their stories and process their fears. Experts wrote articles in the paper with advice on how to manage anxiety, and local activity centers and museums offered free admission to encourage play and community togetherness.
That healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many.
Informal sharing was also quite helpful, and continues to be so. Churches and faith leaders hosted conversations and meals, checked on homebound members and offered continuous availability to listen. And through the months of continued shaking, friends, family and acquaintances reached out in person, through calls or texts, or through social media to offer ongoing support. Many Alaskans are transplants from other states, and it was of great comfort to continue to hear from others in the “lower 48” that our ongoing stress was seen and not forgotten. Solidarity and empathy were offered and received, easing some of the burden.
While traumatic events will always be unique, needing specific response, it is in sharing that we heal. We need to keep caring for each other...in Alaska, in Puerto Rico, in Haiti...and beyond. Find your way to help. Visible suffering may help guide you to know how and what to share in more vulnerable places, but remember to also ask about what is not seen. We are in this together.
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My eyes fluttered awake. Feeling the early morning chill, I pulled on a sweater and drowsily trekked into the living room. I turned on the Christmas tree’s twinkling lights, filled my diffuser with a festive scent, and flipped on the morning news. I smiled as the weather reporter announced a light snowfall would be coming later in the afternoon. As the hosts transitioned to a new segment, detailing creative ways to wrap presents, I spotted a small byline at the bottom of the screen: storms continue in the midwest, four killed, more injured. All the while, above the streamline of critical news stories, two smiling ladies taught viewers how to decorate wrapping paper with glitter glue.
The winter season brings the arrival of many festivities. I’ll be the first to admit, I love celebrations and cookies and chats by a warm fire. However, I’ve begun to ask if my “perfect” holiday picture, provides any room for the realities of everyday life. This semester, I had the opportunity to be an intern with ICTG, hearing accounts from multiple survivors of trauma. I learned that at every level of society, among young and old, powerful and powerless, trauma occurs and it does not respect a schedule. This December, likely, we all have neighbors who, in some way, are mourning, anxious, depressed, hungry, heartbroken, angry, or without support. Many of us may even identify with these things above, yet choose to, or feel we must, ignore or compartmentalize our pain. So where in the holiday season is there room for suffering?
This past month, I was introduced to the writing of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl describes his process of making meaning out of his suffering. He continues to encourage his readers and friends to view suffering as not an end to one’s story. Although terrible and painful, suffering also shapes a person into who they will become. He recalls speaking this message to a room of prisoners, as everyone lays in their bunks, in relative despair. He states “I told my comrades...that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death...They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.” (p.83)
At every level of society, among young and old, powerful and powerless, trauma occurs and it does not respect a schedule. This December, likely, we all have neighbors who, in some way, are mourning, anxious, depressed, hungry, heartbroken, angry, or without support. Many of us may even identify with these things above, yet choose to, or feel we must, ignore or compartmentalize our pain. So where in the holiday season is there room for suffering?
Although Frankl acknowledges selfishness as an abundant means of survival in the camps, sacrifice was also something he witnessed. Despite the cruel conditions of the camp, some prisoners were able to create a community of strength. Frankl includes tales of prisoners sharing moments of humor, cooks who gave him extra scoops of peas, prayer groups and religious readings, and officers who occasionally showed compassion. It’s as Frankl shares: “the salvation of man is through love and in love” (p. 37). In one crucial scene, Frankl has to choose between escaping the camp or to continuing to care for patients in the hospital tent. When provided with an opportunity to choose to love himself or love another, Frankl chooses to love his patients. He attests to have “gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before. I returned to the hut, sat down on the boards at my countryman’s feet and tried to comfort him” (p. 59). To receive love, and return love, he found peace even in the midst of great trauma.
The life of Viktor Frankl is a testament to the healing power of healthy community, a chemistry that Frankl shows can be established even within the most dire of circumstances. Throughout my semester with ICTG, I have seen the beautiful, slow beginnings of recovery in communities in Southern California. After wildfires, mass shootings, and other forms of collective trauma, survivors and responders have worked hard to create support networks for those suffering. As I have attended some of these events, including serving survivors of the Conception Dive Boat tragedy, learning from first responders of the Thomas Fire and Montecito 1/9 Debris Flow, observing community care events related to the Rt 91 Las Vegas shooting, Borderline Bar shooting, and Hill and Woolsey Fires, and providing care to children impacted by the Cave Fire in Santa Barbara, I have witnessed the strength of love and compassion amongst survivors and their family and friends. They have taken time to listen to one another’s stories, to celebrate birthdays and mourn losses, and to dream about better futures they can create together. Their conversations exude grit, real hurt, but also great joys. In all of this, I have been amazed and challenged to rethink my approach to suffering. I am beginning to see suffering not only as pain and loss, but also as an invitation to grow and to deepen relationships with others.
I recognize that I am only just beginning to grasp what that means. So, this holiday season, I want to reflect on my year’s experiences honestly. I desire to acknowledge both the joy and suffering in my midst. I hope to create compassionate spaces in which others can feel welcome to do the same. May we all accept the approach of the holidays as an opportunity to practice healthy community living, to be supportive for those struggling, and to draw strength from relationships when we ourselves are in need. For the communities who have lost loved ones because of storms this week, we see you, we acknowledge your pain, and we mourn with you. May you be surrounded with the support and comfort you need this holiday season.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored the changing landscape of long-term care. This website serves as a historical mark of work the Institute conducted prior to 2022. This website is no longer updated.