By Pete Sheehan | Catholic News Service
LONG ISLAND, N.Y. • After debris has been cleared and physical rebuilding is well underway, counselors for victims of natural disasters and violence contend that real healing still needs to take place.
“There is a real dynamic to how communities recover from natural disasters,” said Jennifer Long, director of the St. Joseph’s Counseling Center for Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City.
Long’s agency is responding to the tornados that struck Oklahoma in 2013, killing 24 people, injuring hundreds, and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage.
“There is the heroic phase,” where people come and try to help those badly affected by the disaster. There is also “the honeymoon phase,” Long said, when there is “overwhelming support from unaffected areas” when people begin to think that the problem is being solved.
Yet disillusionment follows. Those affected begin to look at their situation, sometimes experiencing suicidal thoughts and other psychological distress. There is also disgruntlement about what has been done to help, Long said.
After several months, Long said victims of the disaster enter into the reconstruction phase, when they begin to recognize their need for help and to seek counseling. “Our job is to come in and help out,” she said.
This process is not just limited to natural disasters. Beth Chambers, director of Catholic Charities for southern Boston, has had experience in grief counseling since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Two of the planes that were hijacked on Sept. 11 were out of Boston,” Chambers said.
“We are still counseling family members of passengers, pilots and crew members,” Chambers said. Other incidents such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing can trigger memories and emotions in families who lost loved ones to previous terrorist attacks.
Four months after the marathon bombing she said her office was expecting those affected to come forward. She said grief counselors were ready to assist in any way possible and to also refer those needing additional assistance to other agencies.
“The people who will come to see us are figuring out their own feelings. We will help them to figure out what they need to do. We are not the psychologists, but we can work with people on the day to day,” she said.
Both Chambers and Long noted that the initial focus is on individuals affected most directly by the trauma of violence or natural disaster. That is the key to healing the larger community.
Long said one year after the Oklahoma tornados the agency had some requests for help especially from families with children having nightmares or showing regressive behavior.
“We help them develop basic coping skills,” she said.
For the larger influx of people who will seek the agency’s help later, Long said the goal is to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or to help prevent others from developing it.
Long said an important way to help people recovering a natural disaster is to help them regain a sense of security. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Can you guarantee us that this won’t happen again?’ Of course, we can’t.”
But counselors can help people develop a plan to deal with a disaster if it happens again. Disaster aid can also help ease people’s anxieties -- even those who don’t necessarily need that kind of assistance. Construction of emergency shelters and other preparations can also help.
Long said counselors also can teach survivors how to “desensitize themselves to certain emotional triggers.” For example, they urge people not to link clouds in the sky or even thunder and lightning, to possible tornados.
Or sometimes the onset of a tornado can sound like an oncoming train, Long said. People can learn to moderate their reaction when they hear a train rather than jump to the conclusion that another tornado is coming.
After working with the immediate victims of the trauma, Long said counselors will broaden their focus, meeting with first responders, emergency medical personnel and firefighters.
“We help people to tell their stories,” Long said, “so that they feel less isolated and can see that others have managed to get through this.”