Bushfire chaplain shares his expertise

Bushfire chaplain shares his expertise

13 June 2009

published by www.stuff.co.nz

Australia —

“Don’t suffer alone. There’re always people out there who you can turn to.” That’s the advice to Nelson people from the director of Chaplaincy Australia, Mark Bateman.

Mr Bateman, a trained suicide negotiator and a member of the Australian prime minister’s disaster task force, has been overseeing more than 100 chaplains and support workers from across Australia who are working to help survivors of the Victorian bushfires.

Four months after the fires swept across Victoria, leaving a path of destruction and death, Mr Bateman said the need for help for survivors was just as real now.

“Kinglake has turned from black to white; we now have people living in sheds with no heating. The problems haven’t gone, they are just different.”

He said it was difficult for chaplains working in the areas of the bushfires because, to help survivors, they had to pass places where people had died, including areas where people had been incinerated in their cars after crashing into one another in the smoke.

Even the sniffer dogs found the work depressing. Living people had to be situated at the scene of the fires for the dogs to find to pep them up, as they got so despondent at only finding dead bodies, he said.

Chaplains had a briefing and debriefing every day to cope, he said.

Allowing people to talk about what they had seen was critical to stop them becoming saturated in trauma or compassion fatigue, he said.

“The best thing people can do is talk, unless they are processing grief and trauma then it is bottling up inside. The key to processing grief is being able to find a safe person to talk it over with. If emotions come up, that’s okay. Messy feelings are part of the equation.”

He had his own personal carer to help him, he said.

Mr Bateman said there were also amazing stories to come out of the bushfires, for example, an older man whose house had been destroyed and wife had been killed found a piece of jewellery belonging to her in the remains of their property that had hardly been damaged.

Mr Bateman is speaking at Richmond Community Church at 10am tomorrow.

Last night and this morning, he also held free public talks to upskill “first response” people, such as caregivers, medical professionals and counsellors, so that troubled people do not end up in more serious situations.

“If the community can do our part, we can take the burden off the health system,” he said.

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