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Tragedy in Colorado

Frenzy, Shock, Numbness Have Faded; Now Comes the Pain

Shootings: Outpouring of grief after school massacre is so great that counselors themselves are now getting therapy.

April 23, 1999|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLETON, Colo. — The magnitude of the damage done to this town by two teenage gunmen is just starting to sink in.

For three days, people have been dazed with shock over the rampage at Columbine High School or busy helping others. Now, those who had been too busy to hurt are beginning to feel the pain.

The caretakers are needing care.

Emergency workers and SWAT team members who first ventured into the high school's blood-soaked library are starting to seek grief therapy. The therapists, in turn, are themselves getting help.

"My staff is getting cooked," said John Eachon of the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, which serves Jefferson County's 500,000 residents.

Local therapists and counselors have been staffing grief centers around the clock since Tuesday's killings. And fatigue from the long hours and grief from absorbing the town's sadness has begun to take its toll.

Eachon said that, after spending that first awful day dealing with students and families touched by the tragedy, counselors were debriefed by other therapists, who encouraged them to express their overwhelming emotions. Now even the debriefers are requiring debriefing.

Scores of therapists are converging on Littleton, hoping to help people deal with the grief, both short and long term.

The work is hard.

"These children are dealing with difficult issues," said Rochelle Brundson, a clinical social worker who has been counseling frightened and confused teenagers here. "There are overwhelming pictures in their minds. It's very, very poignant. They are having trouble sleeping, changes in appetite. We're seeing the gamut of symptoms."

Littleton, a meticulously planned suburb of 40,000, could be a stand-in for Everytown, USA. With its broad lawns and schools with impeccable credentials, it's the kind of town that others aspire to be. Families relocate here to avoid the sort of violence that played out earlier in the week. So, when homemade bombs exploded at Columbine, the blasts resonated in every tract home in America.

"The feeling we have is that the world really cares," Brundson said. "We think the media are not coming here to be voyeuristic. We get the sense that people care about Littleton. They are not judging us."

And in its response to the crisis, Littleton has made it clear that it is able to help itself.

From all quarters, help is being offered: Food has been donated by local supermarkets, area hotels are providing rooms for arriving relatives, and even the local animal shelter is taking in pets that grief-stricken families are temporarily unable to care for.

Mental health workers have called from all over the world, offering to fly in at their own expense to lend a hand. People have been calling any civic office that can be reached, many simply asking: "What can I do?"

Ann Wall Richards is a former hospital chaplain living in Denver. When she heard about the shootings, she got in her car and drove here, looking to help. By Tuesday evening she was offering comfort to those who attended the first vigil held at Light of the World Church, near the school. "I saw what was happening and I had to do something to help," she said.

Richards said one of her errands for the service was to buy food at a supermarket. She said that when she told store employees why she was there, the manager gave orders that Richards could have whatever she needed--at no charge.

Such acts have been plentiful. Blood banks are reporting two-hour lines to donate, several victims' funds have been established and seemingly every place of business has at least a coffee can on a counter filled with change meant to help the families.

"It is beyond what I would have expected," Eachon said of the response. "It is the piece that keeps everyone afloat. It helps you understand that there is some balance in the world, that there is so much more good than bad. It restores your faith in people."

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