Facing Disaster in Your Own Backyard

Sometimes the Best Intervention is Not Intervening at All

Patrick Dougherty

Wednesday, Day 1

I got home from my yoga class about 7:30, feeling refreshed and ready to make some dinner. I turned on the computer and looked at my e-mails. There was one from a friend in California that said, "Oh, my God. Your bridge! What a nightmare. I pray that you and your family are well and all of you are safe." I had no idea what she was talking about.

I went to the TV and turned it on. There to my horror was a bridge that I'd crossed hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and it was sprawling in a twisted heap. Bridge 9440, located only a few miles from my home in Minneapolis, had collapsed into the Mississippi River. A semitrailer was on fire, next to a ruined school bus. People were milling around, some obviously in shock, some bloodied, some carrying stretchers, some in the water. Ambulances and police were everywhere. I was stunned. Bridges don't fall down, especially just a few miles from my house.

I thought of my kids, but I knew where they were and that they were safe. I wondered if anybody else I knew was in the midst of the wreckage. I sat mesmerized in front of the TV for more than an hour, with the growing urge to do something. Sitting alone, watching and feeling helpless, was terrible. I wanted to go down to the bridge, but I knew the area was in turmoil and I knew I'd only be in the way.

Thursday, Day 2

I turned on the television as soon as I got up the next morning. There were still only a few known dead, although there were many injured and missing; exactly how many was still unknown. I found myself haunted by the idea that some clients might not come in, ever.

My first client of the day, Dan, talked about the bridge for 15 to 20 minutes. We swapped stories about what we'd heard on the news. I don't think I could not have talked about it with my first client. The bridge was only about three or four miles away, and my heart was aching. I was quite preoccupied with the tragedy unfolding as we spoke.

Then, when he shifted the conversation to talk about his marriage, I felt a surge of irritation and judgment. How could we talk about his usual "issues" when all this was going on? I was disappointed and judgmental that he didn't want to talk more about the disaster and its aftermath. I took a deep breath. Where was this was coming from? Clearly, whatever his needs, I still needed to talk about the bridge. If I couldn't be at the center of the aftermath, I wanted at least to feel myself a part of it in my office, but I reminded myself that my clients weren't required to share my agenda.

I'd been seeing my next client, Kate, twice a week for more than 10 years. As soon as she walked in, she began to weep and said, "My God, do you know anybody who was there?" I answered, "Not that I know of." She cried some more and then said, "Whatever you do, don't turn this on me and make it therapeutic. This is happening to both of us." Very relieved, I assured her that idea hadn't crossed my mind. So Kate and I spent the entire hour on the events going on around us and what people throughout the city must be going through. She did a lot of the talking, but I did a fair share, too. I was relieved to be able to say so much, to be able not to have to stay locked into an emotionally neutral therapeutic role. In fact, just being another human being who wasn't magically immune to the devastation that had taken place seemed the most "therapeutic" thing to do—therapeutic for both of us.

During the lunch hour, I ran over to the Red Cross, and stood in line with many others. At least here I could do something that would directly benefit the victims. I filled out a questionnaire, waited for a long while to get called in, and then sat down with a woman while she took my blood pressure and I answered about 50 questions. Everything seemed fine until the second-to-last question. Twenty-five years ago, I'd lived in Northern Ireland for a few months, and because I'd been exposed to mad cow disease back then, I wasn't allowed to give blood now. All I wanted to do was help, and I couldn't even give a pint of blood!

Returning to my office after lunch was difficult. Much was still happening at the bridge site, and I wanted to be there. Doing therapy seemed irrelevant. My next three clients hardly brought up the bridge—lost in their own misery, or from a part of town not affected so much, or merely wrapped up in their own worlds.

Tony was my last client of the day. He'd been home yesterday from work because he'd been taking a few vacation days, mostly to find relief from a stressful job. His office wasn't far from the bridge, and just about all his colleagues regularly traveled across it. Last night, he'd been distraught, not knowing if any of them had been on the bridge when it collapsed; today, he'd called in to the office, and everyone seemed accounted for. He said he'd heard that people were crying at the office.

He'd been obsessed all day, turning the TV on and off, feeling overwhelmed, wracked by guilt for not being at work. He couldn't decide what was right to do. How much TV should he watch? How much did he want to watch? Was it okay to cut the grass instead? He looked at me for answers. I could really understand his dilemma: in some ways, it was the same one I was having. The best I could muster for him was to be as present as I could and acknowledge that no one had answers at that moment. "Tony," I finally said, "I don't think there's a right way to handle this. We're all in the same boat, trying to figure it out as we go along, hour by hour." I don't think either of us felt relieved by this answer, but we both understood it was the best we could come up with at the moment.

Then it came—what seemed like my chance to do something—in the form of a request on the Internet: "Can you help?" I was a volunteer behavioral health professional for the Medical Reserve Corps of Ramsey County, and they were asking me to spend time with the bereaved families of the people missing in the wreckage at the bridge site. When I answered the e-mail, the response team asked that I come in on Saturday. Somehow I got through my Friday sessions, eagerly awaiting a chance to do something more real and practical to help out with the tragedy.

Saturday, Day 4

Saturday morning came, and with it a sense of anticipation and purpose. I went down to the college where the families were being cared for. When I got there, I was surprised—and a bit disappointed—at how many volunteers were there already. We received little direction, except for the information that the families had been together Thursday and Friday, offering whatever support they could to each other. We were told to greet them when they came in, sit down with them if they so requested, and see how they were doing.

A few exhausted, numb-looking families trickled in that morning, but they gave us clear signals to back off. They avoided eye contact, kept their heads down, and only asked for directions to the new meeting room, to join the other families. For most of the morning, the mental health volunteers outnumbered the family members.

At 3 o'clock, the head police officer running the bridge-response operation came in and made an announcement to the families. "Okay, here's the deal," he began. "In ten minutes, we're boarding two buses, and we're taking you to the site of the bridge." There was a little gasp and a palpable sense of relief in the room. Tears came to many eyes. The families had been asking since the morning after the collapse to go to the site, but too many logistical problems had intervened: the recovery operation that was still under way; the teeming press; the closure of the smaller bridge running parallel to the fallen bridge, leaving no way to get close without virtually going down into the mess in the river. "Right now, the place is being cleared. There's no press there. We're going to open the 10th Avenue Bridge for you folks, and nobody else will be allowed on it."

"We probably are only going to have ten minutes at the bridge before the press figures it out. Nobody outside of this room knows that we're going to be there. The bus drivers sitting in the buses out front have no idea where they're going to be driving us. We want this to be as private as possible. This is for you." Then he said, "Let's go."

Ten minutes later, the buses pulled up to the center of the small bridge, overlooking the fallen bridge. The family members made their way to the edge of the bridge. They looked down onto the wreckage below. For most of them, it must have been the most heart-wrenching experience of their lives. There was the shapeless debris, the burned-out semi, the empty school bus, the abandoned cars, the crushed cars, the half-submerged cars, and tons and tons of broken concrete and twisted metal. And somewhere, down there in the middle of all that, were the people they loved.

I walked along, trying to look as if I knew what I was doing and that it was something helpful. There were people holding hands and softly crying, people praying with the chaplains, people talking quietly. All were handling what was happening as well as they could. I didn't see any need to "help" anybody. In fact, I realized that the best help I could give was by staying out of the way. So I finally stopped trying to figure out what to do and let what I was seeing and feeling register inside me. Tears came to my eyes, and I just started to pray. I prayed for the dead, for the survivors, for the family members. And in the midst of that prayer, something inside of me opened and relaxed. For the first time since I'd learned of the disaster, I felt at peace.

***

This blog is excerpted from "The Bridge" by Patrick Dougherty. The full version is available in the November/December 2011 issue, Who's Afraid of Couples Therapy: Stretching Your Comfort Zone.

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Topic: Trauma

Tags: 2008 | disaster relief | helplessness | mental trauma | Patrick Dougherty | post traumatic stress | post traumatic stress disorder | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | psychological trauma | PTSD | ptsd and depression | relief work | Trauma | trauma and recovery | treating ptsd

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