Ex-volunteer firefighter-turned-priest offers shoulder after Sheffield deaths

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SHEFFIELD — The sad scenes that the Rev. Erik Karas saw during his time as a volunteer firefighter in Wisconsin and Colorado haunt him still.

It's a part of the job they don't tell you about in volunteer drives, Karas said, but it happens to just about anyone who responds to emergencies.

With this in mind, Karas, of Christ Trinity Church, reached out to the Sheffield Fire Department to offer his services after a couple and their three young children were found dead Wednesday in the wake of a fire at a Home Road house. The Berkshire District Attorney's Office is investigating the incident as murder-suicide, with the husband believed to be the assailant.

"I've worked some scenes that had difficult things, and you don't forget that," Karas said. "Firefighters are human, whether they like to admit it or not, and it affects them in drastically different ways."

Due to the severe nature of the job, many firefighters are being affected by what they experience on the job. About 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2016 report by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Karas said that when firefighters need help processing an emergency event, it can be difficult to find people to talk to who can respect confidentiality and have the skills to respond in a way that is helpful.

"I think the key to trauma is getting it out — you need to tell your story, it doesn't matter how many times," he said. "I live next to the church. I'm always here if anyone needs something now or 10 years from now — just knock on the door."

Sheffield Fire Chief Brent Getchell did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. Reached at the fire station, a firefighter said Getchell was consumed with the investigation.

Christ Trinity Church isn't the only organization that has reached out to the town to offer support to first responders or grieving members of the community. The American Red Cross, the Brien Center and Berkshire Medical Center's Crisis Team have also extended their counseling and care services to the town, emergency responders and the Southern Berkshire Regional School Community. Two of children found dead after the fire attended Undermountain Elementary School.

No community gathering or coordinated services have been announced yet.

The town is still reeling from the tragedy, Karas said.

"People aren't coping yet," he said. "They're still in shock."

Ripple effect

James Mucia, director of the Berkshire County Trauma Response Network and the Brien Center's child and adolescent services, said that, when responding to tragedies, it's important to tailor services to the level of impact a person is feeling. Like ripples created by a stone thrown in a pond, the stone is the event, the first ripples are the immediately affected, the secondary are people less connected to the incident, and so on.

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"Basically, if we are chosen to come in, we try to put structure into the chaos," Mucia said. "We go around in small groups and ask, 'How did you hear about it? What do you think about it?' to get people talking. Then we move on to self-care and coming up with a plan."

A self-care plan helps people visualize what they are going to do to make themselves feel better. It can include activities like taking a walk, visiting a friend, tackling home repairs or going shopping.

Mucia said that when people address the trauma in their lives sooner rather than later, they reduce the risk of developing PTSD, an affliction in which a person relives a horror over and over again.

"If you move in quickly, you can stop it," he said. "Of course, these things can be tough, and everyone is different."

For an adult dealing with trauma, Dr. Mary O'Malley, a Berkshire Medical Center psychologist, said the key to healing is talking about it. Telling the story, often more than a few times, helps people process events and come to peace with tragedy. The feelings can't be ignored.

"The most important thing for people to do is not to get into an isolated environment, you need to be around other people," O'Malley said. "But if a tragedy is too much to share your story, don't say too much for now. Turn to things that remind you of meaning and hope."

Signs that someone is having a hard time dealing with a tragic event are anxiety and insomnia, but everyone processes tragedy different. Some cry, while others go numb, O'Malley said.

More counselors available

Talking with children about the Sheffield fire will be important in many households. Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent Beth Regulbuto said schools would temporarily increase the number of counselors on hand and teachers would talk with students in age-appropriate language.

"The district will have additional counselors on hand, and has engaged with some community partners who will also be available to help the school community deal with this tragedy," Regulbuto said in a statement to the community.

O'Malley said that when talking to children about tragedy, the best thing to do is to keep details to a minimum, empathize with whatever the child is feeling and assure them that they are safe.

"Keep it in child language, keep it simple, but keep it honest," she said.

Mary Nathan, disaster program manager for Western Massachusetts Red Cross, said she expects community support might be organized in the near future — it's important for a community in mourning to have an opportunity to share its grief.

"It really depends on what the community says they need," Nathan said. "People are still coming to terms with what happened."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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