In the tight-knit community of Shoreham-Wading River, tragedy has become a part of life.
Michelle DeFranco. Nicholas Mistretta. Kevin Callejas. Nick Donnelly. Thomas Cutinella.
After each sudden loss of young life, the community is left reeling. Yet they rally together.
Such is true after the loss of Andrew McMorris.
It has been more than three weeks since the 12-year-old Boy Scout was killed by an alleged drunken driver while hiking with Troop 161 in Manorville. Four other Scouts were injured in the crash.
The driver in the crash been indicted in court on aggravated vehicular homicide. A funeral and candlelight vigil have been held. Red ribbons were swiftly hung in every neighborhood, storefront and school as the community came together to honor Andrew.
“It’s tough for the community because we’ve lost too many kids in the last few years,” said Pam Garee of Wading River, who turned her Coldwell Banker real estate office into a ribbon-making hub in the aftermath.
On what would have otherwise been a picture-perfect fall day for a hike in the Pine Barrens, life has changed for a troop of young Scouts, their parents and the first responders, many of them volunteers, who must now move forward.
A COMMUNITY GRIEVES
Overwhelming grief marred the Shoreham-Wading River school district, which postponed homecoming festivities and an open house at Prodell Middle School, where Andrew was a seventh-grader.
As heartbroken students and staff returned to classrooms, counselors were on hand for anyone in need. District officials said their crisis response team was working on support services, including an information session for parents on helping children grieve. The district declined to make any counselors or support staff available for interviews.
Cathy Menzies, a licensed clinical social worker, who heads the Long Island Trauma Recovery Network, said that schools can put together a support system consisting of both internal and external resources fairly quickly following a traumatic incident.
Though her group of therapists did not respond to SWR schools, she has worked in neighboring districts like Sachem East, when 16-year-old Joshua Mileto died during a training exercise at football practice last year.
“It ripples through the community,” Ms. Menzies said, adding that each community can be impacted differently. Her group is there to provide education, information and support. “And reminding kids that it’s OK not to be OK,” she said.
Robyn Berger-Gaston, division director at the Family Service League of Long Island, pointed out that this sudden, traumatic incident could be the first time children must confront death.
“It’s really important for kids to be able to articulate what’s going on for them and how it’s impacting them personally,” she said, adding that children should seek out a trusted adult, whether a parent or professional, to talk to. “Someone they can tap into for support,” she said.
Mental health advocates agree that schools play a unique role in trauma response.
A new New York state law mandates that schools must incorporate mental health as part of health education courses.
“I’m all for it,” Ms. Menzies said of the added focus on mental health, as well as mindfulness and meditation. “It will build stronger, more resilient adults,” she said, and could help eradicate stigma associated with seeking mental help.
Schools can also provide a sense of normalcy as these traumatic events unfold.
“The best, most healing thing is for kids to get back to their normal routine. That’s what helps them feel better,” Ms. Berger-Gaston said.
While working with a family who was displaced after Superstorm Sandy, she vividly remembers a child saying ‘I can’t wait to go back to school.’
“You kind of do a double-take, but that’s their comfort zone. They really were needing that normalcy, that routine,” she said.
Adults can help validate what their children are going through, but Ms. Menzies said it’s important that they have resources too.
“Parents need to put on their own oxygen, too,” she said. “To get their train back on the tracks so they can digest the trauma and be present for their child.”
Ms. Berger-Gaston agreed. “It makes sense to be angry, sad, confused, in shock, or all of the above. Adults can educate kids that everyone grieves differently. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” she said.
COPING IN THE LINE OF DUTY
Emergency workers in Manorville are still grappling with what they found at the scene on David Terry Road Sept. 30.
Responding to car crashes is a routine part of being a first responder. But as Manorville Fire Department first assistant chief Chris Lindberg arrived at the scene, it became evident that this was much more than a car accident.
“It was a chaotic, tragic scene,” he said one day after the crash.
Manorville Ambulance first assistant chief Sean McDonald said that the department has increasingly had to respond to fatal calls, particularly car accidents.
Over time, that takes an emotional toll.
“There’s an adrenaline that kicks in, but also high levels of trauma from [first responders] experiencing their first call, their worst call, the smell of something,” Ms. Menzies said.
Local Link Wellness, a therapy practice in East Moriches, offers clinical support to veterans and first responders. Dan Sweeney, a clinical assistant with Local Link, is a 28-year veteran of the NYPD who has seen firsthand what happens if stress and trauma aren’t handled. “It gets pushed aside,” he said. “But it doesn’t go away.”
More often than not, they act like it doesn’t bother them. They joke around. They try to detach. They stay guarded.
After all, first responders are supposed to be invincible.
But attitudes are changing among firefighters, police and EMTs, too.
Mr. McDonald noted that it’s impossible to detach fully at a scene, but responders are trained to stay calm and focused in order to care for patients and address life-threatening issues.
But he remembers the fatalities. There are images he will never forget.
According to Mr. McDonald, the department holds a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing anywhere from 24 to 48 hours after a call, where Suffolk EMS responders speak to members of their department in a group setting and can offer individual support if needed.
Coping with trauma is an occupational hazard for responders, and going it alone can have devastating consequences. A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
“We are beginning to understand the impact high-profile calls such as this one can affect someone,” Mr. McDonald said, speaking about the recent tragedy in Manorville. “We all process these types of things differently. Some of us can move on immediately and continue doing what we have to do, while others may need some time to process, think and talk to someone about it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with either. It’s important to address it in a safe and healthy way, so you don’t carry the bad calls with you.”
A ‘NEW NORMAL’
How does a Boy Scout troop move forward?
With time, in solidarity.
“We’re gonna grieve. It won’t always be easy, but you have to remember the memories and continue on, to a new normal,” Ms. Menzies said.
The loss will be felt infinitely. But eventually, the grief will dissipate from the hallways at Prodell Middle School. Troop 161 will hike again. “There is resilience,” Ms. Menzies said. “There will be more tragedies in our world. But trauma builds community. In a way, that’s restorative.”
Tips to help children cope
• Act calm. Children look to adults for reassurance and can pick up on anxiety.
• Limit media exposure.
• Watch for unusual behavior, but understand that acting out can be a result of trauma.
• Share information about what happened. Be brief, honest, and allow children to ask questions.
• Maintain usual routines.
• Allow them to tell their story of the trauma, so they can release emotions and make sense of what happened.
• Encourage activity and play.
• Understand that children cope in different ways.
• Listen. Let kids know it’s OK to tell you how they are feeling at any time.
Source: The Child Mind Institute