Feeling Whole Again is a series on how an Abbotsford school and community work through issues of healing and security in the aftermath of fatal violence, ahead of a public meeting on Jan. 25. Click here for a list of the stories in the series.
Three days after a random act of violence last November at Abbotsford Senior Secondary shook teachers, parents and students to the core, and reverberated into the community, those most affected returned to the epicentre.
Following a forum and candlelight vigil, hundreds of people streamed into school halls and made their way towards the rotunda, the scene of the attack, now cleaned and looking as it had before everything changed.
Holding flowers, several parents stood around the perimeter. As more families trickled in, mental health workers stood by, wearing tags to identify themselves, with some accompanied by comfort dogs to soothe the anxious and uneasy.
There were tears on the cheeks of many, as they spoke in hushed tones. Some students went to their lockers or to grab belongings that had been left behind, while others stayed in the rotunda, simply occupying the space that hosted horror only days before.
After about 20 minutes, a muted spurt of laughter emanated from a group of students. The energy in the room suddenly changed, and within minutes, teens became more like their usual selves, joking and chatting.
The laughter and kidding was not disrespectful, said Cheri Lovre, the crisis management expert called in to help guide the school community through the fallout of the stabbing.
“It was very much a quiet celebration of finding themselves again and finding themselves together.”
It was as if the rotunda had been reclaimed from tragedy. Teachers, students and staff could now start down the long road of recovery and healing.
Lovre said seeing the school in this context, rather than in the trauma of the previous three days, made it much easier for parents to send their kids back the following Monday.
As students returned to the classes in which they had been locked during the violence, music played in the halls.
“Kids were coming in to something that kind of added a little bit of welcoming and specialness,” Lovre said.
Expert encourages patience, compassion
Comfort dogs were on hand throughout the first few weeks in classrooms exposed to the event, in rooms set aside for kids having difficult days, in the halls, and in “the room with the empty desk.”
Teachers were encouraged to play it by ear – going into full curriculum instruction, or stopping to talk about what had happened – depending on how they and their students were feeling.
Counselling staff were called in for anyone who wished to talk through their feelings.
The month of November was very difficult, according to a girl in Grade 12 who asked not to be named. Students and teachers were still reeling in shock and grief, while trying to remain on track with their studies.
But day by day, the shock became softer, easier to accept. It dominated fewer conversations. School slowly shifted back to normal.
“We had to get back into the swing. We couldn’t keep living back there,” the student said. “We realized that we have to move on and we just accepted that whatever happened, it happened.”
At that point in the healing process, it’s important to try to rediscover a sense of normalcy, Lovre said, but it’s also important to frame the moment in the right context.
“OK, let’s take a deep breath and begin to take some steps forward,” she said. “It’s not moving on and [putting it behind us]. It’s bringing it with us as part of our history, but moving forward together.”
That road forward will continue to have many bumps, she added, including previously innocuous everyday occurrences. Hearing a siren or helicopter, seeing media coverage of other stabbings or doing a school lockdown drill could return minds to that horrible day and again raise adrenaline and anxiety.
Lovre encouraged young people to talk with trusted adults about any grief or trauma. Otherwise, she said students are left relying on peers to guide them through unfamiliar feelings, and those peers have very limited experience and corresponding wisdom to help.
“In other words, for me, I’m old. I’ve gone through lots of crises in my life, and I know that what happens is good people come together and, as painful as it is, we find a way to move forward and we find a way to rebuild what we can,” she said.
Lovre recommends parents find creative ways of broaching difficult conversation with teens who may not want to talk about their feelings or see a counsellor.
One strategy she endorses is for parents to seek their own therapy sessions and invite their kids to come with them and to ask that kids advise their parent and the counsellor on how they want to be treated.
She said the questions parents ask their kids can also be creative. Instead of asking how they are doing, parents can ask how their child thinks their peers are coping, making them the expert, “which is much less threatening.”
Good questions to ask include: “How do you think kids at school are doing? What has the school done that has helped? What have I done that’s helped? What have I done that hasn’t helped? What do you wish the school knew about this?”
“My favourite questions for youth are: ‘What do you wish adults understood about what it’s like to be a teenager today? What do you wish adults understood about what it’s like to go through what you’re having to go through?’ ”
‘You want school to just go back to being the way it was’
Lynn Miller, a registered psychologist and retired professor from the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education, has spent her career studying anxiety in school-age children. She said most youth are able to move past a traumatic event without developing serious or lasting mental health issues.
“There will be an unpleasant memory. They will be glad that it’s over. As time goes on, they’ll be able to put this into their context of an experience that was meaningful but is no longer emotionally provocative.”
Miller said a minority will develop anxiety issues, but that they cannot be properly assessed for at least six months, and they should not be forced into therapy before then.
“Most people, left to their own devices, will figure out how to manage trauma in their own head, in their own way, in their own timeline,” such as through family, religion or sports.
If after six months, a teen is still having trouble sleeping, focusing at school, and avoiding activities he or she previously enjoyed, then Miller said professional help should be sought.
About a month after the stabbing, signs around the rotunda reading “Abby Strong” and in memorial to Letisha Reimer were taken down. Although potentially controversial to some, Lovre said the step was an important one in the recovery process.
“At some point, you want school to just go back to being the way it was.”
The signs were replaced with Christmas decorations in December, and students continued to meet there and hang out with their friends before class. On Dec. 14, they set up a station for decorating gingerbread cookies.
“It looked like a school right before the holiday. It really did,” said Lovre, who has returned several times after her initial visit. “I don’t think anybody could have walked in that school, not knowing anything, and said, ‘Well, what has gone on here?’ No one could have seen or guessed that anything had happened.”
That’s not to suggest no one was struggling personally at the time. But on the whole, she said Abbotsford Senior has demonstrated remarkable resilience.
Lovre said the winter break – from Dec. 17 to Jan. 2 – couldn’t have come at a better time. After six weeks, people affected by a traumatic event often “crash,” as sleepless nights and heightened stress catch up with them.
The real work comes in the new year, she said.
“From there, we rebuild, which is the new part we bring in to make ourselves feel whole again.”