Memories, rebooted.

While I am not a grief professional, as a hospice nurse, grief is something that comes with the territory of my specialty. I have spent time over the years sharing articles referring to the pain of loss, have talked with people privately about their grieving, be it people or pets, and have worked to normalize the vastly different ways people mourn after loss. I spend almost every work day doing my best to be present for those experiencing anticipatory grief and for those newly bereaved once their loved one dies in our care. Like so many others, I am also someone who has experienced plenty of personal grief over the years.

Grief is one of those tricky things that isn’t quite as clear cut as so many would like. In nursing school, we all learned Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief from her revolutionary book On Death and Dying, written in 1969. It presents one of the most commonly known and accepted concepts of grief. The stages outlined developed a framework for what was a revolutionary view for grieving at the time. Dr. Kubler-Ross helped promote compassion and care of the dying and those left behind. Unfortunately, these stages are often perceived as something linear and time limited, an event for people to “get over”. Our culture can be sensitive to loss, but often it is not well tolerated if it is perceived as excessive or prolonged. Mourning loss is a far more complicated process, resembling a tangled mess intersecting each stage at different points and often more than one time. It also is something that never completely goes away, reappearing from the depths when you least expect it.

Over the weekend, news broke about a fatal accident in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, involving a bus carrying a junior hockey team and a tractor trailer. Since we now live in an era where we get our news in real time, as well as updates on social media, it did not take long for me to become aware of the accident. This news included a narrative by one of the physicians who cared for the victims and their families. As a long time nurse, reading this story cut me to the core, knowing how deep the impact this will be long term for all who were involved. An event and response like this affects all the community including the Emergency Medical Services and law enforcement, medical staff, and those who helped prep rooms, get supplies, and otherwise ensured care could be provided to those in need. As I read his story, I couldn’t help but imagine being a part of that team, because as medical professionals and staff, we would all step in and rise to the occasion if it were to happen in our community.

However, my response to the news was a visceral, raw emotion rising from a place of a grief borne long ago during our small town’s own tragic accident involving the fatal collision of a team bus and a truck. Even for those of us not on the bus that night, the crash left a deep hole in our mountain community. On a January evening in 1984, many from my high school were at the gymnasium watching the boys’ basketball team play. Our wrestling team had traveled over the pass to Browning for their own competition and were making their way back home. Conditions that night were treacherous, but to those of us young enough, it was simply another snowy Montana day. In contrast to today, there were no cell phones for texting, calling, and posting to social media. Whitefish is a small town, with a population at the time of about 3,700. We had all of 99 students in our senior class. As with anyone from our town and the surrounding areas, I remember exactly where I was when the news filtered in. The home side of the gym was on the right-hand side, and a stream of people started running out upon hearing the shocking news. Nine people died, including four girls from the junior class, the bus driver, our beloved teacher and head wrestling coach, his assistant coach, his wife and their baby boy. Immediately afterward, I don’t remember much other than being angry when national media reporters started showing up to interview anyone they could at school. It felt so intrusive not only to me, but to so many of my classmates as well. As senior class president, I remember wanting to find a way to kick the intruders out, allowing us to grieve privately. The following many days remain a fog to my memory banks.

Tragic loss is hard to process for anyone dealing with someone’s abrupt death, but it was even harder for those on the bus that night who survived with horrific memories. Our minds have a way of shielding us from these memories immediately afterward, but with time comes reckoning as they return. I remember conversations with a good friend of mine who was there that night. I had a hard time trying to process the things he told me, much less imagine what he and my other classmates had to deal with. I have wished many times in the past several years to be able to transport my adult self back in time. The adult who has responded to countless deaths, even though most aren’t trauma related, and the adult, who with a canine partner, who has learned how to be present during crisis response deployments. Oh, if I could have one thing, it would be this. Would it help? I don’t know, since we all live with “what-ifs”. High school was hard enough, and some mulligans would have been nice.

Grief, but especially traumatic grief, has a way of never completely letting go. That tangled web of grief comes back for visits from time to time, no matter how long it has been. Anniversaries are common reminder, even after so many years. January 21st is one such anniversary. I know my tears this past weekend were not just for those in this most recent accident. The depth of my response took me by surprise, but I’ve learned enough to just go with it. This too shall pass, as I look up to see this reminder through the rainbows I see. Sending love to all who were affected 34 years ago.


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