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
Exploring the changing landscape of long-term care.