Survivor's guilt a normal response, says OKIB counsellor, in wake of destructive wildfire

Survivor's guilt after fire

Driving down Westside Road, Jayna Pooley says she felt a growing sense of anxiety when she saw the destruction caused by the White Rock Lake wildfire.

It was Sept. 7, and she was returning to her Okanagan Indian Band community after spending a month living with family out of town – one of hundreds of evacuees ordered to leave their homes.

Pooley lives in the Naswhito Creek area, which was particularly devastated by the fire – losing 10 homes and two businesses.

Once parked at her home, she says she got out of her vehicle and looked around at what remained of her neighbourhood – the charred community store, the blackened grasses and trees, and the homes where neighbours used to wave from – before falling to her knees and crying.

Pooley says she’s been wrestling with “survivor’s guilt” since she returned.

Lovanda Beliveau, a mental health counsellor for the OKIB, says such guilt is a normal response.

“With survivor’s guilt, it tends to be someone that puts the needs of others in front of their own. They are very empathetic people, it’s people that want to take away the pain,” says Beliveau.

Beliveau facilitates a weekly Wellness “Walk and Talk” virtual event to help members learn more about processing emotions. She says moving through trauma takes time.

“It’s important to remember to take time to process what happened and to go ahead and grieve, grieve the losses, grieve the land, and the memories. You’re not going to look at the land the same way. You won’t look at the community the same way. This is a deeply tragic event that went on,” says Beliveau.

“We don’t get over things, we go through them. So to go through them we must process, and go ahead and feel them, and sometimes the feelings are quite painful and we don’t want to, but our feelings are important. Feelings are guidance.”

Pooley says she’s reached out for help and hopes others will also take advantage of resources like counselling.

“That’s part of our healing and our responsibility is to take care of it. It’s learning how to get through the grieving process without taking on the blame,” she says. “It’s a really tough thing to get through.”

Pooley plans to delay reopening her business for at least a month, out of respect for her neighbours, and wants to avoid attracting people from outside the community as folks recover.

“I know I wouldn’t want anyone lurking and looking in on me if my home and business was destroyed,” she says. “We do need that time and that space to regroup, to grieve, and to start the healing process in our own community.”

She says there aren’t enough words to thank all the firefighters, particularly those in the Okanagan Indian Band’s fire department. “How do you put a cape on that big of a hero?” she asks.

“Fire is cleansing, and we all need to learn that this is a cleansing time for us. Anything that was old that wasn’t serving us, let it be those ashes, let it blow away, and let’s start new.”

She sees this as an “opportunity for unity.”

“We will be the Phoenix that rises through these ashes. We’re going to do it together.”

– Indiginews

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