I spent this past weekend cozied up from the rain, sitting on a couch at the Washington Alpine Club cabin, talking about grief. We talked about much more than grief, but it was grief, at the community scale, that started the ball rolling on the weekend course: Emotional First Responder. As a community dedicated to learning and improvement, we work each year to refresh our knots skills, throw ourselves down slopes to remember how to arrest, and knock the rust off of our z-pulleys. All of the physical skills are fundamental and required and important. But when Laurel Fan died last summer, doing this dangerous thing that we’re all practicing constantly, I found I was unprepared.
Grief is hard, and grieving with a community is hard. She was and is ours to grieve, but she is also more than just a member of WAC, and respecting that while watching a community shocked and saddened was and continues to be a hard thing. This is made even more difficult by the community members on the periphery – the men and women who knew her by name but not closely, yet were watching the men and women they respected and looked to for support be turned upside down.
Grief happens in circles. There is the person who dies and the inner circle of those most intimately touched. Then the circle outside of those people, and the circle outside of them, and the circle outside of them, and so on. Laurel was an incredible instructor and many of the more senior, experienced climbers were close to her. The newest members of the WAC, just knocking the glint off of their crampons, were suddenly the pillars of strength as their leaders sobbed. The structure of support inverted.
All this to say—grief is hard, and watching people you care about grieve is hard. And one is not harder than the other; they are different and both very real. If I could say anything, it’s that showing up is important. I didn’t know Laurel very well—but I still hate that I was out of town and unable to be THERE for her memorial, that I was unable to show up for my community. I sent in words and photographs to be included and I cried that night, underneath the sky in Montana, and I grieved for our loss.
We want to foster an environment of communication – where anyone in the WAC knows that he or she can say “this is hard for me, I am scared and sad and broken hearted,” and they know there is someone listening. The course was the first of its kind. We are not claiming to be professionals, but we reminded ourselves how to approach the world with empathy and kindness, and I think that this matters.
The other work of the weekend was equally important—we reviewed active listening and techniques to unfreeze someone in a panic or near panic place. We revised our languages and we reminded ourselves to define those around is in specific terms (she is diagnosed with the state of pregnancy J) rather than general (she’s a mom). It all sounds silly at first but it is the first step to conveying accurate information without judgement and labelling.
I hope that we don’t have to use any of the skills we learned this past weekend, but the reality is that people will continue to die—it’s sort of what we do. Whether it’s out in the mountains or in hospice care after a long life—death continues. This is one of the things that I found utterly shocking about my father’s death—suddenly I was experiencing something so incredibly unique and, at the same exact time, so completely universally human. I felt part of a larger story and fabric and it was strangely reassuring.
I don’t know that EFR training will grow much beyond our club, but I think it should. At the very outset Danelle, our leader for the weekend, said that around 85% of the adult population have experienced something traumatic. I count myself in that bucket. I know many around me do too. I don’t know what to do with that information except to move forward with an open heart.