The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

May 23, 2013

Dealing with survivor’s guilt: Enid counselors help tornado survivors in Moore

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

MOORE, Okla. — It’s OK to cry. That is one of the messages two Enid counselors gave this week as they helped tornado survivors in Moore.

Catina Sundvall and Desmond Harless spent Tuesday and Wednesday volunteering with American Red Cross as counselors for survivors of the tornado. The reactions they saw in people were mixed.

 Sundvall said she worked in the shelter Tuesday at 4th and Telephone Road, and Wednesday went “into the field” to  where people were trying to rebuild their lives and to mourn friends who did not survive. She talked with anyone, both adults and children. She rode in the Red Cross emergency vehicle and talked to everyone who came to it. Some she talked with separately.

The primary problem facing those she talked with is survivor’s guilt.

“They are afraid to ask for things, like toothpaste and toothbrushes, because they feel they are betraying those who passed,” Sundvall said. “They feel guilty because they are still alive.”

Some people hid in their homes because they did not want to be escorted out. Some families were left in their homes because they feared looting, but she said police and National Guard members were everywhere.

“Their presence was very strong. They were all around,” she said.

The primary difference between children and adults is children don’t know how to express what they are feeling. Adults talked about it, and told stories of things that happened to them and the things they saw, Sundvall aid.

“We handed out coloring books and little packages of crayons to the kids and everyone’s faces would just light up,” she said. “The kids were more wide-eyed and didn’t know what would happen next.”

She told the story of one girl, 10 or 11 years old, who got out of Plaza Towers Elementary School, then went back to help other students get out. She saw two of her friends die, Sundvall said.

Harless also worked at the shelter and was in a different Red Cross vehicle, traveling into the devastation. Near Briarwood Elementary School, he talked to a man whose house was OK, but who lived across the street from the school.

“After the tornado went over with all that noise, there was eerie silence, then I heard the shouts from the school,” Harless said.

He ran across the street to help get people out of the school.

One woman who lived in the area had a large basement where neighbors routinely came during tornadoes. She left her front door unlocked and had bottled water waiting for the approximately 30 people who crowded into her basement.

“It looked like a war zone, like someone had taken a chain saw and cut away the houses,” Sundvall said.

Some of the homes had one wall gone and the rest of the house standing. Sundvall saw flat-screen televisions still hanging from walls, or closets with clothing still hanging in them.

“People were more resilient than I anticipated,” Harless said. “One family was laughing because they found a bottle of tequila that was unharmed.”

Harless talked of one girl crying as people were hauling things from her house. One woman at the remains of a house helped a deaf man looking for his cat. The man could not hear the cat, but the woman did. With the help of neighbors, they found the cat and returned it to the man. The cat belonged to his son, and although frazzled, was in good condition.

Another woman was overwhelmed when she talked of letting the cats out of the house a half hour before the storm hit. She kept saying she could not explain to her daughter that she had killed her cat.

“Letting the cats out was probably the best thing she could have done. Animals will find a place to be safe,” Sundvall said.

Another woman they saw lost a wall of her house, but a bowl of goldfish was unharmed.

Harless talked with a pregnant woman who had attended a baby shower in her honor Saturday, and who brought all the gifts home. All were lost. Sundvall said at a shelter there were clothes for adults and children, but nothing for babies. She said babies needed everything, especially diapers.

Neither Sundvall nor Harless will forget the smell of the area. It was the smell of natural gas and of sewage. Sundvall was walking through an area and saw family pictures laying on the ground, and stopped to pick them up and said the ground was so soggy it sank under her feet.

“It was like walking on a trampoline,” she said.

Harless said most of the families are unhurt, but they have lost everything. As they walked through the area, they saw neighbors getting together and helping each other and filling in what happened to other neighbors, some of whom did not survive.

Another woman felt guilty because she recently had moved her daughter out of Plaza Towers school to another nearby school.

One woman was upset because she recently had moved her father into her home. As the tornado approached, they could not get everyone into the same closet. She put her father and two daughters in an interior closet, and she and her husband got into another closet. Throughout the storm, she did not know what was happening to them and worried because they could not all huddle together. They all survived unhurt.

 Sundvall said ordinary people volunteered to help sort supplies and ended up taking leadership roles when they thought of more efficient ways to work.

Harless suggested adults tell their story of what happened. If they know someone who went through the tornado, allow them to tell about it and don’t feel awkward about it. Children are different. They want everything to be normal again, but Harless said it will not be.

“Things won’t be normal again. It will be a new normal. It’s OK to grieve. Let the kids color and draw and read to them. They may have some regression for a while,” he said.

Routine is important, so children can start to depend on it again. For kids who may have lost a friend or a classmate, understand they feel it closer so let them know that if affects the parents as well family members.

“It’s OK to cry. Show your kids how to grieve,” Harless said. “Parents are role models to their kids.”

First responders should also learn to tell their stories and express their feelings about what they saw, he said.

Sundvall and Harless are licensed professional counselors. Harless also is resident psychologist at Associated Therapeutic Services.