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When your world shatters

Community counselors offer support after Co-op shooting

BRATTLEBORO—Plastic police tape stretches across the mouth of the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s parking lot.

Employees gather on the Whetstone Bridge. Few speak. Two friends embrace.

Bullets are metal and lead and inanimate.

But the bullet that suspect Richard Gagnon of Marlboro allegedly fired on Tuesday morning that killed Michael Martin reverberated through a community largely accustomed to peace and safety.

At approximately 8:15 a.m., Co-op employee Gagnon allegedly shot and killed Store Manager Martin at the store. Town and state police are investigating, and further details have yet to be made public.

The killing falls on the heels of the murder of Melissa Barratt in Dummerston, north of Brattleboro — two killings, only weeks apart in a state that experienced on seven homicides in 2009, according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center.

“What we do know is that our community has experienced a great loss. The life of one has been cut short, and that of another is forever changed — as are the lives of both families. And we as a community are also changed,” wrote Town Manager Barbara Sondag in a press release.

Shattering assumptions

Sudden losses cause a “shattering of the assumptive world,” said Elizabeth Evans Pittman, bereavement care coordinator with Brattleboro Area Hospice.

Communities build expectations and perceptions that help members move through their daily lives, she said. And when the unexpected happens, like a murder, it uncomfortably challenges people’s worldview.

The fact that the shooting occurred in the Co-op, an institution focused on health, nourishment, and well-being, only adds to the community’s shock, said Pittman.

Humans’ natural response to trauma can feel scary and uncomfortable, said Dr. Jilisa Snyder, clinical director of the Retreat’s Anna Marsh Clinic.

Traumatic events strike at many emotional and physical levels with “varying dimensions,” Snyder said. “And it just is.”

But humans also have a natural process for recovering from a tragic event, she said.

“None [of this healing process] should be rushed,” said Snyder.

The effects that Tuesday’s violent act will have on the community and Brattleboro Food Co-op employees will have different dynamics, depending on the people’s respective relationships to the location, the suspect, the victim, and one another, and to individuals’ psychological states, said Snyder.

In places of employment, “people are really co-existing together,” and the relationships between employees span the range from indifferent to friendship to family-like, she said.

According to 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, of 4,551 recorded fatal workplace injuries, 462 of them resulted from homicide.

Looking for a reason

When confronted with grief and tragedy, said Pittman, most people launch into attempting to make sense of the violent event. “But there aren’t easy answers,” she said.

Pittman also warned that although more facts about the shooting will emerge in the future, “facts may not fully explain behavior.”

“Also, there’s randomness in the world,” she added.

As natural as attempting to make sense is, said Snyder, the community will have to remain vigilant against creating inaccurate assumptions or connections.

“As difficult as it is, we have to sit with a level of not knowing,” Snyder said.

From shock to reconciliation

Snyder said people should prepare themselves to experience strong emotions that will take their own time along the path to resolution.

“There’s so many different layers,” said Snyder, and these layers won’t resolve in “the short term.”

Initially, shock will hit people’s systems, manifesting for some as numbness or disbelief.

A “heightened stress response” often walks hand-in-hand with shock. People’s “flight or fight” response may kick into gear, accompanied by symptoms like increased heart rate.

Once the shock passes people’s bodies, psyches begin absorbing the event’s impact, said Snyder.

During this time, waves of emotions like anger, fear, confusion, sorrow, grief, guilt, or depression crash over those who survive such trauma.

It’s like an earthquake, she said: The intensity and duration of the shockwaves depend on how close a person is to the epicenter.

And the process of fully incorporating the event to arrive at a place of acceptance or peace will not form a straight road, said Snyder. Emotions will come, go, and be unpredictable, she said.

“Really take care of yourself,” she said. “Your mind and body are trying to regain their equilibrium in the middle of a trying situation.”

Just as with any injury, Snyder said, people should nourish themselves with food, water and emotional support.

Snyder stressed that if people feel they need help processing any emotions, they should reach out rather than hold feelings in. They should reach out to friends, counselors, or spiritual leaders, or they should access an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through their places of work can provide assistance.

A sense of safety

Tragic events like the Co-op shooting can spark strong feelings of helplessness, said Pittman.

People will sometimes respond to such feelings with anger or guilt, she said. These response emotions act as a salve over the helplessness by giving individuals a sense that they could have controlled an uncontrollable situation.

“In a small town, for caring people, everyone is our own,” Pittman said.

Feeling safe “is primary” for people’s well-being, said Snyder.

Despite one’s possessing the rational knowledge that tragedy exists, said Snyder, a person’s health and well-being provide a natural resistance from a constant fear of risks.

She pointed out, for example, that drivers don’t shake with fear every time they get behind the wheel despite knowing they could end up crashing the car.

Violent or unpredictable events, however, cause the inner sense of safety to naturally “become quite porous.”

“It’s also natural to be able to heal” and return to equilibrium, she said. After a car accident, eventually the driver, in most cases, will get back behind the wheel.

An opportunity to come together

Pittman said to help one another through what for many will be a trying time, neighbors will need to balance extending a supportive hand and backing away to allow privacy.

She said people in all relationships negotiate this balance.

A community vigil is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Whetstone Pathway, next to the Co-op building where the shooting occurred.

Pittman encouraged community members to attend the vigil because it can help provide an outlet for emotions and dissolve the isolating feelings associated with shock and grief.

When a body is physically wounded, the immune system begins the healing process by sending white blood cells to the injury, said Pittman.

And in the same way, people are also drawn to a “place of wounding,” an action that ultimately plays a part in the emotional healing process, she said.

“This is a very important first step for our community,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #113 (Wednesday, August 10, 2011).

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