The Wide World of Grief

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"Many of them are simply people who've had losses such as their infant child dying -- so they'll start a newborn group," Reutzel points out. "Suicide groups, homicide groups...you name it, they're out there." These organizations bring with them an infinite variety of philosophies, precepts and quirks, but a vast majority of them preach that grievers must share what they're going through with others in order to get a grip on their feelings. Likewise, such people need to be reassured that their reactions are normal and to learn how to handle those times when thoughts of a death or traumatic episode resurface, as they inevitably will.

For Reutzel, this last truism proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks she's overcome personally: In her book Original Loss, she writes that her inability to process the death of her husband in a car accident haunted her for 25 years. The tome was completed in 1996; she's working on a followup.

News reports about traumatic events -- big and small -- often make it seem as if there's a local Grief Headquarters, where therapists prompted by screaming alarms race off at a moment's notice, shoulders ready for leaning -- and although that's not literally the case, it's figuratively closer to reality than many might expect.

"We have an entire team of people qualified and trained to provide immediate, on-the-spot counseling in the case of a traumatic event," says Dan Mosley, the chair of the "disaster committee" for the Mile High chapter of the Red Cross. "There's always someone on call and ready to respond."

Here's how it works: The Denver branch of the Red Cross has a core cluster of trauma authorities on call; right now there are nineteen of them, up from just five when Mosley got started, and he predicts the total will keep growing. Like Mosley, a licensed psychologist, each is a professional in the therapy realm who's undergone special Red Cross training sessions to further prepare him for the specific trials he's apt to undergo. (Training takes place at least twice a year, supplying a pool of people to call in case things get downright biblical. Mosley says the current list contains well over a hundred contacts.)

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.")

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts