(Last part of our series)
Jeannie was just sitting down for dinner at her daughter’s house on a warm summer evening, when she saw through the window an RCMP cruiser pull into the driveway. The bad feeling she’d been having all day solidified into a lump of despair when she saw a second car come in behind the police, and from it her friend Gail emerge.
Gail, Jeannie knew, was an advocate with Heartland Victim Services.
As two constables put on their hats, they were joined by the advocates. Jeannie, her husband Herman, and daughter Betty – who asked that their real names not be used – met the four people outside.
“The police officer didn’t even tell us,” Jeannie said. “He just said that he had bad news, and looked over at Gail. I just knew. I knew that (my grandchildren) were dead.”
Jeannie’s two grandchildren, who were both under 10 years of age, had been spending the day elsewhere with their father when there was a tragic motor vehicle accident. All three died.
“Betty just dropped to the ground,” Jeannie recalled. “Herman picked up a piece of patio furniture and threw it. I freaked a bit, turned and said I’d have to call (my) mom.”
While Gail Kunstman, who is still an advocate with Victim Services today, helped console Jeannie, Betty and Herman, the second person went inside with a teddy bear and took the children there on a walk, keeping them occupied while the adults grieved and tried to wrap their minds around the “new normal.”
“We were all crying,” Jeannie said, saying that all of them were inconsolable. “Herman screamed. He wasn’t crying, he was mad. He was very upset.”
Though Victim Services don’t always attend to notifications with police officers, the ones with Heartland Victim Services often do, and are there to help ease the survivors through the tragedy.
While Jeannie eventually escaped inside to phone the rest of her family and let them know what had happened, Gail was outside with Betty and Herman, helping them and holding them while the tragedy ripped through their lives. Through the whole matter, from the notification until today, Victim Services has been there helping the family cope.
“They’ve kept in touch,” Jeannie said. “When we went to do the funeral services (Kunstman) was right there for us when we came out. It was pretty hard. She’s always been there for us.”
The emotions that come with a tragedy are violent in that they are overwhelmingly powerful, and people react different ways. Sometimes they collapse in grief, and other times they become silent. Victim Services advocates are trained to help people ease into that new reality and are able to help guide victims to services that can help.
“Victim Services helped us contact the Minister who ended up doing the service,” Jeannie said. “(Kunstman) helped us find counsellors in Red Deer” to help the family cope with the tragedy they were now going through.
Herman, who had reacted so loudly and angrily to the news about his two grandchildren, also made use of the counselling services.
“His main concern was Betty,” Jeannie said. “Helping her through it.” He took part in several different programs that helped him manage his grief and his anger so he could be there for his daughter, programs made available through services that Victim Services helped him find.
Today, some years later, thinking about her grandchildren no longer means an immediate pang of heartache, but instead happy and beautiful memories, Jeannie said. The sight of a butterfly dancing through the air or the sight of a tractor trundling across a field bring them to her mind so easily. Jeannie credits counselling for that, as well as time and the support she received from Victim Services.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said. “I was so numb, and I was wandering around in a fog for the longest time. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have gotten through it.”
Her daughter, Betty, is getting closer to the same point, Jeannie said. It’s been very hard for her to think of her children, but she’s started to do that again.
“We’re doing really good,” Jeannie said. “There’s days where we don’t want to talk about them, but we know we have to. They’re still there. They’re watching over us.”
Do you want to get involved?
Heartland Victim Services serves the County of Stettler and is currently seeking volunteers interested in making an impact on the lives of people who are the victims of crime, tragedy or circumstance. Volunteer opportunities exist in both front-line volunteerism in the role of advocacy, or in the trenches as members of the Heartland Victim Services board.
To become an advocate, interested individuals must undergo a police check. Training is provided to advocates by Victim Services Alberta through online and in-person sessions with the local Victim Services Unit.
For more information or to sign up as a volunteer, contact Heartland Victim Services’ Pat Hamilton at 403-741-7841.
The organization is facing a “critical” shortage of volunteers both on the board and as advocates and needs interested people to reach out about how they can help.