John O'Donnell: Trauma and its Unpredictable Legacy
Beth Porter: It has been 15 years since the Swissair disaster. Since then you have been called to give leadership at anniversary events. How has your experience at and after the disaster affected your outlook and work as a chaplain?
John O’Donnell: It’s taught me a lot about human beings and life in general, and a lot about community and relationships. It has helped me to appreciate more the gift of life and the capacity of the human spirit to rise above or to pick up and move on from difficulties. Our lives are more meaningful when we are being kind and compassionate and being there for one another.
What was that time at the crash site like for you?
I got a call early, before sunrise, to deploy with my unit to St. Margaret’s Bay, near where the plane had crashed. It’s maybe a kind of protective mechanism, but I realized that something inside of me was working to prevent me from absorbing the full breadth of the disaster during the first several hours. It took at least a day for me to get my bearings and to begin thinking about how best to function under such unusual circumstances. There were tents set up and we were living and breathing the situation 24 hours a day. We were sleeping, but I remember on the third day someone asking me what I had been doing about eating. I realized I had barely eaten for 3 days. It wasn’t a normal situation. You experience some support from being engaged with others. Everyone had a role to play. As a padre, my job was mainly to connect with the soldiers who were collecting the debris and human remains. If I sensed that they were not doing okay, I would sometimes intervene and recommend that they be given different duties. There were some very intense situations. For example, a soldier would recover a child’s shoe or some other item of clothing, and because he or she had a child that age, all of a sudden they would reach another level of consciousness about the situation and that would trigger a very difficult moment for them.
Where did prayer come in during those days?
I was praying, constantly, constantly. There wasn’t much time to pray with the soldiers on the beaches, so prayer in that context was, for the most part, nonverbal. But when the families started to arrive and I was asked to accompany them, prayer became an integral part of our time together. Since they couldn’t get to the crash site itself, an area at Peggy’s Cove was designated for them to view the ships engaged in the recovery operation off shore. Among other things, I was responsible for accompanying families down as close as we could safely get to the water so they could throw flowers in and just mark the moment in prayer or silence. I prayed as best I could with many families from various faith traditions, taking the lead with Christian families and praying silently with non- Christian families as others led prayer.
Did you sense God was there at that water’s edge?
This sense came in unexpected moments. A family might break into a meaningful song for their loved one. It was a way of trying to bring some sense to the situation. One family sang Nearer My God to Thee and then Amazing Grace. It was incredibly moving, but because only one family at a time could be accompanied down to the water’s edge, I remember becoming preoccupied with the thought that other families might become frustrated having to wait for us. When I finally got back up to bring the next family down, I apologized to them for having to wait and the father’s response was powerful. “Padre,” he said, “that was amazing! You could have taken all day there as far as we were concerned.” I remember as well one family member walked along the line of firefighters and police who formed a kind of safety net, giving each a hug before she came down to where I was. Seeing people exhibiting generosity and compassion and love in spite of their own grief—that was probably one of the more powerful signs of God’s presence. Many families came in the days following the crash. There was a prayer service about a week after and it was attended by most of them. Because it took a long connection. Very early, we gathered a group of faith leaders that represented about 90 percent of the people on the plane—Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and various Protestant Christian denominations. This small group with myself worked with family members to organize the prayer services on the first anniversary and in years after.
You have followed families who have stayed in touch.
Yes. A line from a memorial day poem comes to mind: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” That faithful remembering of loved ones gives me hope.
Now, most families mark September 2nd in their private way, but there are a number of families who come back to Nova Scotia each year. I think they are drawn because they made a connection, albeit a tragic one, with local people who tried to embrace and support and love them when they first came. And there is just the place: the natural setting is awe-inspiring and incredibly beautiful. I think that plays a part also in calling people back.
You worked with soldiers doing recovery work after the crash and also with a number of soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What is life like for these people?
What most sticks out for me is just the inability to move on from a traumatic event, so that they are daily re-living aspects of it over and over and can’t cope with everyday activities. For example, for a soldier, walking up to and opening a door can trigger thoughts about an instance where they opened up a door to a very difficult scene. They struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, feeling alienated and alone, even when they experienced a traumatic event with others. Part of their suffering is that their family and friends often don’t understand and just regard their behaviour as anti-social. The experience of General Romeo Dallaire comes to mind. His openness about the effects of PTSD that he suffered after Rwanda helped heighten public awareness of it.
About 8 to 10 percent of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and a significant number of those who worked on the Swissair recovery operation have experienced the effects of PTSD—leading to the loss of jobs, families, and marriages. The Canadian Armed Forces has put a lot of time, energy and money into trying to provide various treatments through Integrated Personnel Support Centres across the country. There are some success stories, but from what I know, some soldiers do end up unable to function and they leave the military. Some have found other work and new relationships, but some have definitely fallen off the radar altogether.
As far as I know, even the most knowledgeable and experienced medical and other professionals haven’t been able to figure out exactly why some people are able to cope with traumatic situations better than others. There are new therapeutic responses but PTSD is still very much a mystery. We encourage people to talk to a counselor or close confidante in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event and not to bottle up what they are experiencing. Talking can act as kind of a valve. Spirituality can be an important resource, though not for everyone. Meditative practices and trying to grow spiritually can help people integrate difficult experiences. Good spiritual guidance can help people connect to a faith community where others accept and support them. All the same, it’s hard to say whether that connection enables them to cope better with posttraumatic stress.
I participated in a number of post-traumatic stress management sessions in the immediate aftermath of the Swissair disaster and it’s really hard to say whether they had much effect in preventing PTSD in those who attended. Some people cope fine for a few years and then experience difficulties. Maybe they go through another trauma—a marriage break-up or other loss. Their normal reference points are unhinged a bit and all of a sudden this triggers disturbing memories of the event years ago.
Is PTSD different in civil life? I don’t think so.
People experience trauma in other situations— accidents, violence. Either way, we’re talking about human beings trying to cope.