Castlegar has really been put through the wringer in the past few weeks.
Tons of bad news, most of it involving young people – the high school student arrested for possession of child pornography, then, days later, the so-far unsuccessful search for 19-year-old Zach Larsen.
Days of fruitless searching until the Search and Rescue (SAR) teams just had nowhere else to look, and stood down. Two days after that, RCMP dive teams had to search for the body of 29-year-old Josh Evin, a local businessman and an icon in his own right, with a bright and exciting future. A motorcycle accident robbed him of that, and robbed the community of him.
Local media has been saturated with tragic news ...and that's not mentioning the broader regional picture, with an apparent suicide in Trail, the search for the body of a canoer in the Kettle River in Grand Forks, the Nakusp man believed to be drowned ... it's a horrifying list that seems to never end.
“There's no doubt it affects the community – when it affects our youth especially, it's felt not just by the victim and the victim's family, but by the community as a whole,” said Castlegar Mayor Lawrence Chernoff.
Fire Chief Gerry Rempel concurred, adding that the impact is greater in smaller communities, as opposed to larger centres where bad news stories are the norm, since most residents will likely know someone directly impacted by the situation.
Rempel has been involved in Critical Incident Management (a program to help emergency responders cope with the fallout of the tragedies they witness) since 1990, and says the same principles apply when an entire community has been traumatized by an event or series of events.
“(It's about dealing with) a normal reaction, in a normal person, to a highly abnormal event,” he said. “It's all about the physical, mental, and emotional reaction.”
He said many citizens of Castlegar – whether they knew the victims or not – will be experiencing some sort of reaction to the tragedies of recent weeks.
“For sure, it can impact a whole community,” he said.
Gail Eastman, a registered psychologist in Alberta and instructor in Critical Incident Management and Grief After Trauma, said a key factor in the larger community will be a sense of safety that is, at least temporarily, lost.
“One of the major losses, other than that of the victims themselves, is the sense that the world is a safe place,” Eastman said. “It makes you realize that, if the world is not just and fair and safe, that could just as easily be my child.
“Considering what your community is going through right now, some sort of reaction is normal.”
She said one very normal reaction to that fear is to look for someone to blame – including the victim – and cautions against doing so, explaining that reaction is less about truth than about needing to believe that bad things won't happen to good people ...which just isn't the case.
Both Rempel and Eastman agree that responses to this sort of chain of events will vary greatly and are largely unpredictable – and the first step in coping is to be self-aware.
“Not everybody reacts the same, and there's no set pattern to it,” Rempel said, explaining some may feel sick to their stomachs, others may not sleep as well, others may be afraid to let their kids engage in their usual activities, while still others may shut down completely and feel nothing at all. And the response may be felt now, or weeks down the road.
“Sometimes the reactions aren't immediate, and you won't see them for awhile.
He said that, if you didn't know the victims or their families, you may not be exempt – parents may experience almost crippling empathy, young people may feel afraid to go outside alone ... the potential responses throughout the community are almost infinite.
“Pay attention to what you're feeling, and if you see any changes, don't think you're crazy – it's perfectly normal. Tell yourself you can feel rotten, if that's how you feel,” he said. “And if you don't feel bad, then don't feel bad for not feeling bad – that's normal, too.”
Rempel and Eastman also agree that self-care is especially important in difficult times like these – eat well even if your appetite has been adversely affected, drink lots of water, exercise, do things you enjoy – and don't self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Doing so may help in the short term, but it makes the long term exponentially harder.
“Keep in contact with your friends, talk about it – don't isolate yourself,” Rempel added. In fact, he said, community gatherings that allow you to express and share some of your upset, like memorial services, can be a critical outlet.
“Don't make any huge life decisions or major changes,” he said, adding all these tips may be especially helpful for the roughly 160 people who showed up to help search for Larsen. He said people who are accustomed to feeling competent and in control may have walked away feeling terribly helpless ... and those are feeling that need to be acknowledged and expressed.
Both Rempel and Eastman agree that, if you express your feelings, talk to friends, care for yourself both physically and mentally, the reaction to tragedy will pass ...but if it doesn't, there's no shame in asking for help.
“If you or your friends can see that these issues are staying with you, seek help – that's not crazy, it's healthy,” he said. “See your family doctor, or talk to one of the mental health organizations here in the city, or call the crisis line.
“People in these services are more than happy to get you the help you need – and we all need help sometimes.”
The B.C. Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-515-6999 or 1-800-667-6407.