Consultants are working to ease grief over the collapse of a building in Florida
After Lauren Miller lost her father to COVID-19 in January, her longtime boyfriend Jay Kleiman advised her not to wallow in grief and seek advice to ease her pain.
Now she is mourning again – this time only for Kleiman, one of dozens of people believed to be under the rubble of a 12-story apartment tower in Florida that collapsed over a week ago and killed at least 24 people.
“I’m sure he would tell me, ‘It’s okay to be sad – that’s very, very sad – but you have to go forward and be strong,'” Miller said in a cracked voice.
As hundreds of rescuers continue their desperate search for survivors in the remains of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, a smaller cadre of mental health advisors has also been dispatched to help families and other loved ones faced with overwhelming feelings of sadness, fear, and anger to become.
For each missing person – 121 on Saturday – many more lives have been turned upside down as people await news about their loved ones or replies explaining what caused the calamity. It has been a week since all of the survivors were pulled out and the emotional and psychological exhaustion is taking its toll.
More than two dozen grief counselors are on duty at the family counseling center in a hotel ballroom, where briefings are held daily. When relatives arrive, what is known as a navigator helps assess immediate needs and decide whether a mental health specialist should be called in.
“Sometimes you just put a hand on one shoulder and don’t say a word,” says Rita Rodriguez, Miami-Dade police chief, a crisis intervention officer who comforts families. “Because a lot of them just want to tell you about their family member and tell you how they are feeling.”
Given that small things have the power to cause intense suffering, officials removed potentially triggering details – an ill-chosen black sheet draped in a hallway, bouquets of flowers that arrived with the best of intentions but the scene.
During the briefings, the advisors scan the room for signs of distress. Dog handlers lead comfort dogs around the room to be petted and sometimes to sit on people’s laps. Rooms are available for everyone who needs private advice.
“When we see a person crying, whatever it is, we let the psychiatric trauma therapists come over. They start by offering a box of tissues. And if they want us to sit, we sit; if not, we just stand there and ask if they want to talk, ”said Annika Holder, Miami-Dade County’s commanding officer at the center.
Alfredo Lopez, who barely escaped his 24-year-old home with his wife and 24-year-old son, rattled off the names of missing friends – too many to count. The survivor’s guilt was so overwhelming in the first few days after the collapse that he sought help from the counselors.
“You spoke very reassuringly, very lovingly, motherly,” said Lopez, 61. “It meant a lot to me.”
A website, surfsidestrength.com, was set up as a portal for accessing help later or for those who mourn remotely – like Miller, who is in New York.
Florida describes itself as the first state in the country to establish a post-disaster mental health coordinator position whose sole focus is organizing critical mental health services after a disaster.
That official, Darcy Abbott, admitted that the long wait had caused tremendous stress for the relatives of the missing.
“It’s very difficult because it was unexpected and extremely tragic,” said Abbott.
Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, who made mental health a key initiative, and Governor Ron DeSantis also met with families.
“We saw firsthand what a deep emotional toll this catastrophe took on the lives of so many people,” she said, describing her stories as “heartbreaking but also inspiring”.
Florida has seen many traumatic events, from the 2018 mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Pulse nightclub two years earlier, to the intermittent hurricanes that plague entire communities.
The horror of the building collapse, while different, can have similar psychological consequences, said Dr. Katherine Shear, director of Columbia University’s Center for Prolonged Grief. The danger is that people can bring their lives to a standstill and no longer function properly.
“In time, most people will come to terms with it,” Shear said, “but some people just can’t.”
Rescue workers are also exposed to psychological trauma as they work around the clock and experience heartbreaking scenes. On Friday, they took the body of a 7-year-old girl, the daughter of a Miami firefighter who was involved in the search, from the rubble. Therefore consultants are embedded in the crews to offer support.
“Obviously the firefighters are emotional,” said Alan Cominsky, Miami-Dade County fire chief. “You know it’s taking a toll.”
Rescuers have been on duty since the early hours after the Champlain Towers South collapsed in the early hours of Jan.
Among the confirmed fatalities are family members of Kleiman who were in town from Puerto Rico to attend a funeral.
The last time Miller spoke to him, they talked about their son’s recent prom and the pride Kleiman felt after his daughter got an internship.
Miller seeks solace from friends and may return to her grief counselor soon. Despite all the odds, she clings to the hope that he will somehow emerge alive and imagines him and others trapped in a bag in the wreck.
“And he tells them not to give up,” Miller said, “while they wonder how many days it will be before they are found.”
AP writer Kelli Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Florida contributed to this story.
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