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Pastors give post-trauma care

Nearly five years after the Columbine High School tragedy, the last lawsuit pending against Jefferson County was settled.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 3, 2004

"A familiar sight, sound or smell can bring up earlier traumas for years to come."

—Rev. Mary E. Hughes Gaudreau

This week nearly five years after the Columbine High School tragedy the last lawsuit pending against Jefferson County was settled.

And this week nine years after the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building the state trial of Terry Nichols on 161 counts of murder has just begun.

In each community, while some people have, in a sense, moved on with their lives, for others the pain has scarcely dulled.

"Often times by this point there is a split between those who were directly affected and those who were not," explained the Rev. Mary E. Hughes Gaudreau, director of care ministries with the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church's disaster response program.

Gaudreau, who has worked with communities across the nation in the wake of trauma and disaster, is a licensed pastoral counselor. With support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Gaudreau has been able to help people cope with short- and long-term grief.

"Typically, several years out, most people will have begun to reintegrate the traumatic event into their lives," she said. "Some people create new group or new individual identities based around the event."

In Littleton, Colo. where high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people in April 1999, then committed suicide "the children who are younger have known this all their lives," pointed out Gaudreau.

This week, a student who was wounded in the shooting and whose rescue from a second-floor window was broadcast on live TV settled his lawsuit against sheriff's officials for $117,500.

This lawsuit or others like it may become "trigger events" a new trauma that causes people to revisit the earlier trauma.

"A familiar sight, sound or smell can bring up earlier traumas for years to come," said Gaudreau.

Years after an event, traumatic stress symptoms or post-traumatic stress disorder can continue or even appear for the first time.

For those directly traumatized by the Oklahoma City bombing, the state trial of Nichols has already stoked people's lingering suspicions that other groups or individuals besides Nichols and Timothy McVeigh were involved.

The trial was moved to the small southeastern Oklahoma town of McAlester because of the difficulty finding impartial jurors in Oklahoma City.

While many people recover quite well from trauma or disaster and will require little more than occasional support from their churches and pastors, others say they are doing well until they find themselves in deeper discussion, Gaudreau said.

Pastoral counselors and psychologists alike often observe three stages of grief in the wake of trauma. The first is safety, a stage in which trauma survivors address their practical needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

After the first stage, survivors begin to realize the permanence of some of their losses and some begin to realize that the recovery and grieving process may be very long.

The second stage of grief is remembrance and mourning, during which survivors might, for example, work together to plan a community memorial. Both trauma survivors and those helping in recovery including pastors may minimize and mask ongoing pain in the name of "busy-ness" and "doing."

Survivors may report a sense of telescoped time, or have the feeling the traumatic event occurred just a couple of weeks ago when it has been months or even years.

The third stage is reintegration, during which survivors come to terms with their grief and assess how it has changed their lives.

These stages don't map out neatly for everybody, explained Gaudreau. "There are people who are going to be stuck."

Psychologists and psychiatrists differentiate between reactions to death or trauma by defining "complicated grief" versus "uncomplicated grief."

Uncomplicated grief reactions are those that, though painful, move the survivor toward an acceptance of the loss and an ability to carry on with his or her life, according to Dr. Holly Prigerson of the Yale Department of Psychiatry. Survivors with uncomplicated grief may feel very saddened by the death of a loved one, but they, nevertheless, are able to feel that life still holds meaning and the potential for fulfillment.

Survivors experiencing complicated grief reactions question who they are, how they will survive, and their prospects of future fulfillment in the absence of the deceased person. Survivors with complicated grief feel acute separation distress, with intense pangs of yearning or longing for the deceased, a sense of emptiness and lack of purpose, a disturbing sense of feeling detached from others and numb, sometimes feeling like a part of them died along with their loved one.

Sometimes the symptoms of complicated grief can look very similar to those of clinical depression, said Gaudreau. What's more, people who display clear signs of depression and stress disorders are often hesitant to ask for help.

Local pastors can play a significant and constructive role in helping trauma survivors cope or helping them find the resources they need, she added. "Pastors need to be watching for complicated grief."

Clergy can also offer positive reinforcement for those people that have managed to reintegrate their trauma and grief into their lives.

"I'm not talking about pretending everything is okay," she said. "I'm saying it has to be a genuine celebration. I could not do this work if people didn't get better."

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