Contributed by Serena Lewis, MSW, RSW
Scientists study the impact of earthquakes, and the devastation that can, and does, occur in the aftermath. The Richter scale was developed, teams collaborate, coordinate and respond. There is science, and there is a human element of cost that occurs. The Portapique tragedy would rank on the highest end of the scale, if we’re measuring and responding in the same way.
But we haven’t created a scale for trauma and loss with an understanding of the magnitude of the tragedy. When it comes to experiences of mass loss, we don’t have the tools to exam the effects on those most closely affected, those a bit further in the perimeter- and the overwhelming impact on the collective as to what just happened? And so, we react. And do the best we can. But how we respond, rather than react, is where the greatest lessons are learned.
As a resident of West Colchester and a professional who has worked in the field of grief for the past twenty years, I am in awe that we are collectively not comprehending the magnitude of what has occurred. For families, the communities, and the world who watched in horror of what was endured here, there has been an eerie kind of stillness. In earthquake terminology: the aftershock is settling in.
What I have discovered in my work is that death impacts us. When processing death and its aftermath —whether through palliative care, or in a violent or tragic way— there is a lack of understanding by the outside world of the magnitude of what has occurred.
We in North America have been challenged to talk about all thing’s death related; maybe we can talk about the ‘facts,’ but what about the depths of grieving? We are reactionary, as we deliver our obligatory lasagna, and struggle to find the right words for a social media post or maybe a sympathy card. Before March 2020 we may have courageously stepped into a formal ritual with family. We have struggled as a society with how to engage with our grievers.
So, after the earthquake of our lives has occurred, and the few days of attention and support, we are then left with our grief that finally, and deeply settles in. We understand that the loss isn’t just the person, it is everything that this person has meant to us: the good, the bad, and the hard to discuss. This post ‘casserole delivery’ phase is what I call the ‘silencing of the mourners’— not because we have forgotten or are being rude, we just haven’t been taught how to stay in the depth of the sorrow that this quake has caused. So, we back away, we try to find the appropriate words and actions. But let’s stop and consider the impact to the griever?
I have come to see there is something far greater than suffering. It is when we are left to suffer alone. That’s not to say we do not need or desire our quiet, reflective and private moments. Instead, it means that we need people to still be able to acknowledge us, and the person who has died, being present in a responsive and long-term way, as our lives are forever changed. There is no closure, there is no magic cure for grief; it’s a lifelong process that can be affected by the compassionate, responsive understanding by the people around us.
Jack Saul states that when mass loss occurs, healing becomes a collective process done with ‘inside/ outside support’, meaning that we need to see and hear the experts with the lived and skilled experience. Dr. Gabor Mate reminds us that when intense grief is not expressed, it settles into our body; the unacknowledged trauma associated with tragic loss has major impacts for the long term on individuals and communities at large.
So just what is meant by trauma-informed grief? What it means is that we need to listen, and we need to hear what the families, who have had this massive, sudden and violent loss of people they cherish, are trying to process and express. It means hearing what will be helpful from the individuals (who may seek skilled guidance to identify and express these things), and then hearing how we as friends, professionals, organizations and governing agencies need to responsively act. The grievers must be our top priority.
And then we need to consider the people who have been impacted on the periphery by what has been endured, whether they be communities of first response teams or neighbours. Colchester County has been shaken by losses such as a sense of safety, friendships and neighbours, homes, economic impacts and also trust. There’s also a loss associated with this new identity — Portapique will now be identified as that place— and these are all aspects of the aftermath.
Being trauma-informed means that we will commit to listen, and respond to our grievers; we will create spaces for them with the people they choose (experts within and without), in safe and respectful ways. We will learn new tools of communication, and not pathologise nor patronise the impact of what started in Portapique on the dreadful night of April 18. This collective trauma will require collective healing.
A public inquiry means we’re learning that silencing mourners is not responsive or healthy. It will not be an easy process, but honest dialogue has the opportunity to create collective healing and support social change.
Serena Lewis is a Registered Social Worker who lives in Colchester County, NS. She has worked in the field of grief with schools, hospice and palliative care, long term care, corrections, and alongside First Nations communities. Serena is committed to see recognition of grief as a proactive means to support mental wellbeing, and strives to support grief /death literacy through trauma-informed practice.