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Lac-Mégantic: With lives on hold, grief response is complicated

Michelle Lalonde

Montrealer Marie Dumaime was asleep at her sister’s home in Lac-Mégantic Saturday morning when the ear-splitting “boom” woke her up.

Seconds later, Dumaime’s nephew was knocking on the bedroom door, telling her something had exploded and she had to get up and out of the house, now. Out the window, she could see trees on fire in the neighbouring park. In bare feet and pyjamas, she helped her 94-year-old sister to the car.

As they drove away, they saw what Dumaime describes as a “30-foot wall of fire” just a few dozen meters away, at the end of her sister’s lakeside property. It was as if the lake itself were on fire, Dumaime said.

It was a harrowing experience for Dumaime, 76, but after spending only one sleepless night at a friend’s in Sherbrooke, and a few nights in her own bed at home in Town of Mount Royal, she seems completely recovered from the ordeal. Her sister’s home, and perhaps their lives, were spared by a sudden change in the wind direction, while several nearby houses burned to the ground. Her sister’s neighbourhood will not be accessible for weeks, still considered part of a crime scene as police investigate the deadly freight train explosion.

Dumaime feels terrible for the victims and those who lost loved ones in the disaster, but she herself is sleeping well and does not feel anxious or unsafe, despite the fact that she narrowly escaped a fiery death.

Meanwhile, many Canadians living far from the tragedy, especially those who live near railroad tracks, have been shaken to the core by the disaster at Lac-Mégantic, which has claimed dozens of lives.

So what is a normal psychological response to a disaster like this?

Camillo Zacchia, a psychologist at the Douglas Hospital, says there is no such thing.

“There is no universal response, nor is there a ‘correct’ response. Some people remain stoic and introspective while others might be completely overcome by emotion, crying and shaking uncontrollably. These are normal reactions,” Zacchia said.

How one reacts to trauma depends on a number of factors, including genetic predisposition toward anxiety, attitude toward risk and danger, and past experiences, he said. Most people, even those who lose loved ones or witness horror in a disaster, do not develop long-term psychological problems.

A small percentage however, will see symptoms worsen over time and may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by constantly reliving the trauma and trying to cope by avoiding all reminders of the event. Others may develop anxiety disorders or depression which can, like PTSD, become debilitating, Zacchia said, if not treated.

But in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, psychological counselling can only do so much, he said.

Richard Vaillancourt, coordinator of emergency social services for the provincial Health Department, said a team of 37 professionals (social workers, psychiatric educators and psychiatrists) were dispatched to Lac-Mégantic Saturday, and 35 remain in the town, taking shifts to be available around the clock.

“Our first priority was to help people start to verbalize their emotions, to help them get enough distance from the events to realize they are safe now,” he said.

But Zacchia and other experts agree that being with loved ones and returning to daily routines, as Dumaime did, rather than talking to strangers (even if they are professional counsellors) is key to recovery for most people who witness disasters.

“In the first days following the event, people are in shock and most of what we (counsellors) will do for people in that state is to help them feel grounded,” said Dr. Robin Cox, who heads the Disaster and Emergency Management Program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.

She notes that the lives of many Lac-Mégantic survivors have been on hold since Saturday morning, given that it has taken so long for deaths to be confirmed, so their grief response may be complicated.

“The fires may be out but it is still a crime scene, bodies have not been found, deaths are not yet confirmed, so the event for these people is still going on,” she said.