The Wide World of Grief

Colorado has become one of the country's hubs for teaching, and learning, how to feel bad.

The counselors, all volunteers, are placed in an on-call rotation, and if there's what Mosley calls "a triggering event" -- an incident in which "there's been death or serious injury or people displaced" -- the point person will be paged by a representative of agencies at the scene (police or fire departments, most likely). The pro in charge will then direct a counselor or counselors to the scene or go there himself, ready to offer an open ear to anyone who might conceivably benefit from one. That's often followed the next day by debriefings, in which mental-health presentations are made before entire groups.

On most occasions, the occurrences that precipitate a call to the Red Cross take place on a relatively small scale: a single house burns down, someone dies in an automobile accident. But in his time, Mosley has also made debriefing appearances before residents forced out by a fire at an apartment complex, a community upset by the shooting of a child, and those caught in the Buffalo Creek blaze and subsequent flooding, among other occasions. And when he was acting as the coordinator of the Red Cross reaction to Columbine, he temporarily found himself on the other side of the therapist: His squad was debriefed by representatives of the Mayflower Critical Incident Stress Management Team, a volunteer group that offers its services to emergency responders and hospital personnel. "We really needed it," he says.

(When the Denver Mayflower team was founded in 1985, it was the first in Colorado -- there are now ten -- and just the third in the entire United States. According to founder Patricia Tritt, who's the program coordinator in Denver and the state as a whole, the primary difference between Mayflower's approach and that of the Red Cross involves the makeup of the counselors. Approximately one-third of the volunteers are mental-health professionals, while the other two-thirds are specially trained individuals culled from the ranks of the very departments whose members the team counsels. "In order to have credibility with certain work groups or populations, you need to have peers as part of the team," she says. "Sometimes it's difficult to go into a fire agency or hospital as just a mental-health person. But when you're with their peers, you can.")

Alan Wolfelt would like to teach the world to smile in perfect harmony.
Anthony Camera
Alan Wolfelt would like to teach the world to smile in perfect harmony.

For Mosley, making sure that debriefers and counselors know their stuff is key: "After the Oklahoma City bombing, you had all these well-intentioned people showing up wanting to help counsel people -- but unfortunately, some of them didn't have the training they should have had to be doing it." To that end, he not only encourages his fellows in the Colorado Psychological Association to volunteer with the Red Cross, but he takes every opportunity to make sure he and his current staffers are on top of their game -- hence his role as the chair of the Disaster Mental Health Services Committee for a September 6 drill at Denver International Airport. The exercise called for emergency crews to test their readiness in the case of a massive crash at DIA, and in recognition that the Red Cross is designated by Congress as the primary agency to provide family support in the event of an aviation tragedy, a therapy team was on hand to mock-debrief mock victims of mock trauma. "It's good that we get a chance to practice our preparedness, too," he says.

Not that Mosley is rusty: As a participant in Disaster Services Human Resources (DSHR), the Red Cross's national system for disaster response, he traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges struck the island in 1998 and pulled similar duty last fall in North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. "I commit myself to a block of time every year," he notes, "because when there's something of that scope, the needs are tremendous."

The Red Cross isn't the only group with a squad of counselors ready to jet off to far-flung locales at a moment's notice. In the event of a major outbreak of on-campus violence (of which Columbine is, for the moment, at least, the most extreme American example), the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Association of School Psychologists is prepared to respond via the National Emergency Assistance Team, or NEAT.

Dr. Theodore Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the association, says that the Oklahoma City bombing established the need for NEAT. "There were so many children involved in that terrible tragedy," he says, "and two school psychologists from Oklahoma called our office in Bethesda asking for help. Then, after sending one of our members out to do what he could, we developed a group of individuals who had prior experience with major crises in the country to be available for communities in these kinds of situations." Feinberg was a natural choice, having volunteered for the Red Cross during flooding in the Midwest back in 1993, and his cohorts sported similar backgrounds: Two had counseled victims of hurricanes in Florida, and a third was a veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he'd had to deal with multiple shootings, suicides and no shortage of other unpleasantness.

A couple of years later, the rash of school shootings began in earnest -- so many of them that they began to be referred to by their settings: West Paducah, Kentucky (a fourteen-year-old student killed three classmates and wounded five); Jonesboro, Arkansas (two boys, ages thirteen and eleven, killed four students and a teacher, leaving ten wounded); Springfield, Oregon (a seventeen-year-old killed his parents and two students, and wounded more than twenty innocent bystanders). NEAT representatives -- at present, there are seven of them -- raced to all these scenes as well as numerous others where the carnage wasn't quite so voluminous: Flint, Michigan, where a seven-year old murdered a six -year-old student in February, and Lakeworth, Florida, which made news in May because a thirteen-year-old took the life of a teacher who'd chastised him for tossing a water balloon earlier that day. And Feinberg himself traveled to Littleton after the April 1999 assault on Columbine, when the media's fervor reached a new high.

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