By Mark Vander Vennen
Recently I had an experience that, sadly, is becoming more and more common. One might even say that it is becoming a “new normal.” But I have found that that does not make it any easier to deal with.
In early November I was privileged to offer four days of WrapAround Facilitator training for staff and colleagues of Strathcona County Family and Community Services in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Family and Community Services is an outstanding program serving people in the Sherwood Park area, which is a community connected to Edmonton. One year ago I also gave WrapAround training there, and their staff are doing some outstanding WrapAround work.
At the end of Day 2 of the training, on November 6, I toured an excellent interactive display for community members about the opioid crisis on the main floor of the County building, where the training was held. I left the building at 5:30 pm to go to my hotel across the street.
At 6:30 pm, an explosion rocked the building. A 21-year-old male ignited a pick-up truck loaded with explosives in the parking garage underneath the building, then went to his car and shot himself (he died in the hospital). A second explosion happened two hours later. Thankfully, no one else was hurt, though the first blast was powerful, and though the building was full of people including patrons of the public library located in the building and community members staffing the opioid display. I watched the drama unfold that evening from my hotel window.
The impact has been huge. Hundreds of people were affected, including the drivers of over 100 parked cars who could not gain access to their vehicles for over a week. As of this writing, the building remains closed to Family and Community Services staff.
Any act of this nature is senseless. It doesn’t add up. But there are even more peculiarities about this one. Apparently the perpetrator was not a loner (he had friends), came from a good family, and was not radicalized in some way. His friends and family say that this behaviour is altogether out of character for him. Police say they may never uncover a motive. None of this adds up.
This experience has got me thinking about how we as human beings make sense of or “integrate” traumas when they happen to us. How do we make sense of unexpected shocks directed at us that make no sense? How do we deal with, for example, being assaulted, or abused, or exposed to violence in some way? Many of us suffer traumas much more severe than this one. How do we make sense of the senseless?
I certainly don’t have a definitive answer. I do know that sharing the experience with others, in a safe way, is crucial. Our training resumed two days later in a new location. We spent a lot of time debriefing about the impact of this event on all of us. The debriefing was essential for everyone, myself included. We were able to complete the training, and it ended up being highly successful.
I also know that there is no quick fix. Things like talking with loved ones, psychotherapy, and for me, prayer are all helpful. It takes courage to face trauma. It takes courage to try to comprehend the things that do not add up. But we have each other. We have people with expertise who can help. And I pray for my colleagues, with whom I continue to do WrapAround coaching, at Strathcona County Community and Family Services.
Most of all, I pray that experiences like these stop becoming the “new normal.”
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network