Many survivors of the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash have a long road to recovery.
Several of the players who survived Friday’s bus crash in Saskatchewan are still in hospital. They have physical wounds that range widely from minor to life-threatening injuries.
But a crucial part of the healing process involves mental health, namely coming to terms with the loss of loved ones — and accepting that they survived.
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Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), explained that survivor’s guilt involves wondering why things happened the way they did.
“A lot of times following sad events, people ask why. And the more severe the trauma is, you’re even more likely to ask why,” Kamkar said. “And more often than not, there’s no answer to that. We don’t know why.”
Part of that is wondering things like: “Why not me?” or “Could I have done something to help?”
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Humboldt survivors grapple with tragedy
It’s something that 18-year-old Ryan Straschnitzki, who was partially paralyzed in Friday’s crash, is struggling with.
“He does have survivor remorse, [saying] ‘If I was sitting there, I wouldn’t be here,’” his father, Tom Straschnitzki, explained. “We said, ‘Pal, you’re going to have that. You gotta be able to talk about it.’”
Another player who survived the crash, Nick Shumlanski, expressed similar devastation in a Twitter post.
“Although reality hasn’t really set in yet, it is truly devastating to have lost so many close friends, brothers and amazing coaches,” Shumlanski wrote, adding that his survival was a “miracle.”
1986 crash survivor recalls pain, guilt
The Humboldt survivors aren’t alone.
Sheldon Kennedy, who survived a similar hockey team bus crash in 1986, spoke out after Friday’s accident expressing the how difficult moving on can be.
“We can relate to the pain that’s going on here, we’ve spent 30 years trying to find our way through this kind of darkness ourselves, and hopefully we can bring some hope to those that are struggling right now,” Kennedy said.
He explained that there are many questions that loom large after tragic events.
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“There’s survivor’s guilt, [thinking] I could have done this, or maybe I should have done that,” he said, adding that survivors of the 1986 crash never truly “understood why we felt the way we felt.”
“We never understood, and we could never point a finger on why we didn’t feel right.”
When is it time to seek help?
Family and friends can help by listening patiently to survivors as they mull these questions, and encourage them to slowly let go, University of Toronto associate professor Mel Borins explained.
But Borins, who specializes in grief counselling, added that it’s important to know when professional assistance is needed. He said that while sadness often passes with time, other emotions such as anger and guilt can be “crippling.”
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“When it interferes with functioning, when it leads to depression, or interferes with appetite and sleep and your day-to-day functioning, that’s when it’s important to get help,” Borins said.
Kamkar added that dealing with grief and guilt is a “highly individualized” process, so it’s important to let those coping do it at their own pace and in their own way.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
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