400. Gripping Grief

I got a call early today marked “URGENT”.  Could I do an intervention in the next town over? An employee had died. Did I have two hours in my schedule? Sure. I have done these things before– Critical Incident Stress Debriefing or CISD in short. We negotiated a price and I moved my schedule around to accommodate them.

My first CISD followed a bank robbery 12 years ago. I had no idea what to expect, but it didn’t matter much. Six female bank tellers and other employees who had been present that day were given 2 hours in a conference room with me to digest what had happened a couple of weeks earlier. Each woman told her story, and in doing so showed what she held dearest.

“I thought of my kids. How would they survive without me? When it was over I somehow thought the robber would find my house and kill us all.”

“Me too!  I’m not far from retirement and I saw all my dreams of traveling with my husband go up in gun smoke.”

“Did the perp fire his gun?”

“No. He jumped over the counter and yelled at us… it was awful. Even now I’m shaking just thinking about him– all dressed in black with a Yankees ball cap on. I hate the Yankees.”

“I do too, but I’ve never been robbed by one of their fans. They are pinstriped rich crybabies.”

Nervous laughter.

Each woman spoke of her fear and her nightmares, all of their hypervigilance to protect against another robbery, no matter how irrational it might seem.

“I didn’t wan to come to work again– ever! I felt sick like I was going to the firing squad.”

“It’s good you did come in again to prove to yourself that it was safe.”

“Yeah, but it was tough. I came for these ladies.”

“Amen! I wanted to quit too. No job is worth losing your life.”

Finally we came to the last teller, Sherry. She seemed unfazed by it all, even partly amused by the debriefing. “It was nothing”, she declared.

“What?” all reacted as one.

“Yeah. I run with MEDIC I. I see blood and guts every day. It was just another day at the office.”

“Oh Sherry, just wait till you’re married and have kids. You’ll feel different.”

“I doubt it. You know my luck with men. They’re all thugs to some degree. Players and takers, just like the punk who robbed us. I wish I was allowed to carry my Glock at work, you know, cuz we don’t have a guard. I’d have ended that robbery as soon as he came through the doors. I had cover and a good angle. He was a joke, holding his weapon sideways like he was in some gangster movie.”

“Sherry, for someone who was  not affected, you sure have a lot to say.”

“Me? I’m fine. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

As I wrapped up the meeting, the only concern I had was regarding Sherry. She had been traumatized just as much as the other five women who were all married and moms. Yet she denied being victimized or feeling out of control. It was clear that she needed to feel very much in control, at all times,  everywhere. Talking of fear or vulnerability requires loosening one’s grip on control. She couldn’t do that.

Ironic, isn’t it, that meeting force and coercion with more force and coercion does  not produce a lasting peace. Force and coercion only produce gun smoke and blood.

Another time I had a single robbery victim crisis. She had been robbed by two men with black guns during the overnight shift at her convenience store. She shook as she told me her story in bits and fits and flashes.  I said next  to nothing. After an hour I asked if she’d like to talk again. “Sure, how about tomorrow? I won’t have a job to worry about anymore since I’m quitting. No job is worth a life.”

Next day: same time, same chairs, only this time Wendy spoke with more coherence and control. She didn’t realize it yet, but security was returning. Again I said next to nothing. I wanted her to empty out all her nervous vomit. She readily complied. In this second recitation she began to feel and express anger at the robbers and moved toward a desire for justice. She focused on apprehending the criminals. She even mentioned driving around looking for their black Camaro. “I thought they were gonna shoot me in the back room. I stared down one of their gun barrels waiting for a bullet in my face. I’ll never forget that. I want them to feel what I felt. We gotta catch’em.”

We met again the next day for session 3:  same time, same chairs. Sherry told her story in half the time, minus all the sobs and shakes that had been part of session 1.  I reflected her changes to her and she agreed. Power was returning to her mind and body.

I met Wendy for the last time officially the following Monday, same time, same chairs. She was restored, looking forward to going back to work that night. “And I  told them I don’t need a babysitter. I can handle it. Been doing it for fourteen years. Golly! I’m not giving up my job for two losers. Plus, I can keep looking out for them. If I see their car again, I’m calling the cops right away. I’m not losing my house, my job, my sobriety cuz of two clowns with guns. I have a lot more to do in my life.”

Many years later  I ran into Wendy at one of the same convenience stores. I waited for her to recognize me, and she did. “I’m doing good. Thanks.”

“Wendy, if you recall, I said next to nothing.”

“Yeah, maybe, but you listened real well. Thanks. I needed to tell my story.”

So, if you can’t stop to  grieve, what is lost? If you don’t grieve, then you can carry your carnage with you, slowly killing off the life you could have had.

I imagine Sherry walking in to Wendy’s store to by a pack of cigarettes and a Diet Dr. Pepper.

Wendy, “Honey, that’s an expensive way to kill yourself. I know. I used to smoke and drink.”

Sherry, “What? This? This nothing. I’ve seen a lot worse, lemme tell you.”



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