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A crisis counselor on the struggle to respond to mass tragedies

In the wake of the Florida shooting, a chaplain explains how she helps survivors cope.

Florida Town Of Parkland In Mourning, After Shooting At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Kills 17 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, officials had a message that’s become a common refrain in the wake of these tragedies: Grief counselors would be available.

These counselors are trained for these crisis moments, to be the first responders to shock and sorrow. They arrive as trauma is still unfolding. The nature of their work is to move from tragedy to tragedy: They arrive in the immediate aftermath, to serve as a kind of bridge that brings survivors and victims from the event to, hopefully, longer-term mental health or counseling services. Then they are gone.

Sometimes, said Gerry Griffith, a crisis counselor in Indiana, even the tragedy is forgotten. “What blows my mind is that everybody just expects these kids to go on,” Griffith said. “And it becomes a part of who they are for the rest of their lives.”

Griffith, 67, has spent nearly 30 years responding to crises. She responded to the Oklahoma City bombings, and she came to New York in the aftermath of September 11. A chaplain in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department in Indiana, she works as a trainer with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) and with the Indiana Crisis Assistance Response Team, or ICART. Her daily work is often in the wake of quieter, more intimate tragedy: when a student dies from a drug overdose, or takes his own life.

While she can’t speak on the details of Florida’s crisis protocol, she explained what crisis teams were likely to do in Parkland this week — the same playbook for the next shooting, or natural disaster. She herself has never dealt with a school shooting in Hamilton County, where she works. But, for now, she said, “it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

This conservation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

Officials said soon after the shooting in Parkland, Florida that grief counselors would be available to students, teachers, and others. What does that mean usually?

Gerry Griffith

In the state of Indiana, for example, there is a law that requires every school to have a safety plan, and a safety team, and with that plan is the script put out into the community when bad things happen that says grief counselors will be on site. Now that could be local pastors — those are not always necessarily clinicians. It could be the crisis team. Sometimes it is school counselors from other schools in the area. Our prayer is that these people have some training about trauma, because they don’t always.

Jen Kirby

What do you think, as a crisis counselor, when you see something like the shooting in Florida?

Gerry Griffith

This is the nightmare beyond all nightmares. Instead of kids getting the mental help for the trauma, they’re putting camera and microphones in front of their faces. And on the national level, every family who has had someone they love involved in a school shooting, they’re right back at their school shooting. Every parent who has lost a child in a school shooting is losing their child again. What’s happening in Florida is happening all across the country, to everyone who had a school shooting.

For those of us that respond to the kids, something inside of us goes off when this starts hitting our phones and our televisions. It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when. We’re all sitting around holding our breath.

Jen Kirby

What happens when you get the call to respond to such crisis situations?

Gerry Griffith

When bad things happen in a school, we get a call, and we have to move. If it’s a school, we’re getting a call at 9 pm that something bad happened: “Can you be there at 6:30 in the morning? And we’re going to need five team members.”

Over Christmas break several years ago, a student was murdered. We met with the teachers and the administration before all the kids came back to school with a plan. Someone would go to [the deceased student’s] classes. Maybe there’s her desk and there’s some trauma around that desk. So open it up and talk about it: “This is what happened.” Deal with rumor control: “This is what we know is true.” We promise if we don’t have answers that we will get them for the students.

Usually we set up in the media center or the library. Anybody who wants to talk, come down. We’ll have them in groups sometimes, or some kids who will come in and somebody’s there to talk to them individually.

The first day we worked our butts off all day long, going to her classes, identifying kids that might have challenges. The next day we were still there, we didn’t do the classes, but we were meeting with kids, listening to them, and eventually trying to get them back into class. And if it doesn’t work, you [tell them], “Come on back. Let’s talk.” Get them calmed down. Listen. We’re keeping track of these kids.

We would have somebody in the teacher’s lounge because teachers need a break — they have a connection to that student — and paying attention to the cafeteria workers, school bus drivers if the kids rode the bus. In an event like what is happening in these schools, no one goes untouched.

There will be kids who never knew that student that will be a hot mess because maybe Grandma died, maybe their parents are going through a divorce, maybe they’re being abused at home — and now somebody’s there to listen. So we’re very mindful of that — just because you didn’t know the girl that was murdered, paying attention to reactions of all the kids, give them all an opportunity.

By the third day, I was the last one there. I met with administrators and the school counselors, and we talked about what kids I’ve seen that I have concerns about, what are some issues for them to pay attention to. And then we’re gone.

Jen Kirby

So you’re really only there in the immediate aftermath — and then your job is done?

Gerry Griffith

A crisis team is short term. We recognize that kids need help, and we do referrals. We’re going to leave information. We have handouts for parents, how to talk to their children about the things that happen

I work with the National Organization of Victim Assistance. They’re the ones that these bad things happen that are going to stay to with them more long term. We refer people because we’re only going to be there for a few days, and we’ve got to make sure that we leave them in good hands, because we know it’s a forever experience.

Jen Kirby

How does the process work, actually talking to the students or other survivors of a crisis in the immediate aftermath?

Gerry Griffith

Create a safe place. Our No. 1 goal is safety and security.

Our model is so simple because first is safety and security, we have to make it safe for somebody to talk, or cry, or not cry, no matter what is triggered for them. I tell them we’re not going to tell others what they say unless I’m concerned that you might hurt yourself or hurt somebody else. What is said stays here.

Then the next part is the ventilation and validation. We ask them, “Where were you when it happened? Who was with you? What did you see, smell, hear, taste, touch? And what did you do?”

Let them start talking and you kind of take them through these questions so that they’re telling their story. And they start to hear, “Oh I wasn’t the only one who was sick to my stomach, I wasn’t the only one that can’t remember.” Then they don’t feel so alone.

So it’s ventilation, validation, and then the last part of it is prediction and preparation. What’s going to be the hardest thing about coming back to school next week? What are some things we can do to make that better? The model is simple, and it covers everything.

Jen Kirby

How many years have you been doing this type of work?

Gerry Griffith

About 30 years. I think it’s getting pretty close.

I got invited to go to Oklahoma City [after the 1995 bombing] because I worked with adults and children with catastrophic and terminal illnesses, so I’d been dealing with death and dying. An organization I worked with had a grant to bring teams into Oklahoma City. I had no trauma training then, and I was a hot mess.

So that’s why we have this crisis team that teaches people about trauma. We did the training here in 2000. When I was in the training, my mom died. I started in the midst of the trauma.

Jen Kirby

So you’ve been doing this for decades. Honestly, how do you do it?

Gerry Griffith

It’s interesting because so many people will say that. I had a mentor, early, early on that said doing this work is learning how to keep your heart open in hell. I know what hell looks, tastes, like, and smells like.

I think, for me, there are people in my life that I can talk to about this. I have a husband, he’s proud of me and he supports me. When I’m out there in Oklahoma City or out in New York, I can call him and I can talk about how the dog, what she’s doing today. Because he’s not there.

Somebody asked me the other day: ”How would you know when you’re done?” I said, “When I stop crying.” When I stop feeling, when I don’t cry, my heart has closed and I have to quit.

Jen Kirby

What stands out to you about how people talk or explain horrific events like school shootings?

Gerry Griffith

I guess sometimes the sad part for me is that so many times they’re just kind of forgotten. It’s like, ”Okay, it’s over.” I met a girl who was a student at Columbine when the shooting happened, and she went to school to become a school counselor and is now back at Columbine. She was a speaker at a fundraiser about how that impacted her life. But what blows my mind is that everybody just expects these kids to go on. And it becomes a part of who they are for the rest of their lives.

And to me, it’s a sense of powerlessness. What I hear is, ”Well the NRA controls everything so we really can’t do anything. And politicians, the NRA owns them so they’re not going to do anything.” It’s like, does anybody care? Because they’re not paying attention to the impact. How are these kids going to feel safe again?

I have this line that says, ”The more adults act like children, the more children act like adults.” I ache for these kids — that’s my passion, how this impacts their forever lives.

Jen Kirby

I think, in the aftermath of the shooting, that line “children acting like adults,” feels extremely apt. Their indictments of politicians’ failures to act really stood out.

Gerry Griffith

There aren’t any innocents out there. We’re all responsible for our children. We’re all responsible. I’m not a politician, but I have a voice. I’m not everybody’s favorite person, and that’s okay with me, I’m not going to stop saying, ”You’ve got to care about these kids.”

Jen Kirby

To that point, each time a mass tragedy like this happens, nothing really changes. Do you think we should change our current crisis model to better equip ourselves for these traumatic events that, so far, our society remains unable to prevent?

Gerry Griffith

There was a company here in Indianapolis that had five co-workers in the midst of that shooting in Las Vegas. A team member and I were in that office when they came back the next day, and [talked] them through that, doing that education piece about how it’s stored and about triggers and all of those different pieces to empower them.

But I do believe that instead, how hard is it figure out that we don’t sell assault rifles? I work with law enforcement, I know bad people are going to get whatever they want. They don’t follow the laws, they don’t follow the rules. But people with mental health issues don’t need guns, people with domestic violence backgrounds don’t need guns. There are ways we can do it, and it’s not about taking everybody’s guns away.

Jen Kirby

Maybe on a brighter note, is there a memory that stands out to you in your decades of work that gives you hope?

Gerry Griffith

One time I was working with a group of children, and one of the children had died. We were going to plant a tree, and they were writing letters to Travis [the boy who died] to put in the hole before we put the tree in.

We were standing there, around the tree, and this one little boy says, “Isn’t it interesting how we take paper made from a dead tree, to give life to a new tree?” And I’ll never forget that. Because with every ending is a new beginning. And with each school shooting, we get another chance to get it right.

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