Easing tornado trauma by listening

Catherine Zylstra is in Oklahoma. She isn’t dishing up soup, handing out supplies, or building a house.

She is there to listen.

“It’s a ministry of presence,” said Zylstra, who lives in Monroe. “There’s a very strong need — when there’s a loss of life, property, and many other losses — to provide a compassionate presence. When people are in the midst of total chaos, they need to feel they’re not walking alone.”

Zylstra, 57, is the first volunteer from the Snohomish County Chapter of the American Red Cross to be sent to help since a tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., on May 20.

She left Thursday for a two-week deployment as part of the Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care program. A board certified chaplain who has worked in hospitals, she has experience helping people affected by trauma and grief.

“They’re there to listen and be a support,” said Kristi Myers, chief development officer of the Red Cross Snohomish County chapter. Spiritual care has been a Red Cross mission for some time. “It’s just not a program a lot of people know about,” Myers said. “I think it’s almost as important as feeding people or handing out supplies.”

Physical needs are sometimes more easily addressed than a disaster’s intangible effects. Even without loss of human life, “people still have grief,” Myers said. “Sometimes pets are involved.”

When a home is destroyed, it’s more than losing a roof over one’s head. Gone are pictures, keepsakes, all the cherished talismans of memory.

In Boston, an interfaith chaplain with the Red Cross accompanied victims of the marathon bombings and their families when they recently returned to that crime scene, Myers said.

Zylstra talked Thursday about her background and the Red Cross effort. She is certified as a chaplain by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. That required her to have a master’s degree in theological studies and additional clinical pastoral education. She was trained for the Red Cross spiritual work at a recent conference in Pittsburgh.

She learned about the Red Cross spiritual care program from Tim Serban, former director of mission integration and spiritual care at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. Serban, a longtime volunteer with the Red Cross here, is now chief mission integration officer with Providence Health &Services in Portland, Ore.

Zylstra made clear that her Red Cross role is not a religious one. She is a faithful Roman Catholic who worships at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, but that’s not what she will share in Oklahoma.

“When I’m representing the Red Cross, I’m not representing any faith or denomination,” she said. “People may not necessarily believe in God like I do. Spirituality is what gives you meaning and value in your life, who you are as a human being, and your relationships with yourself and others. That may include religion for some people.

“We really aren’t about religion. We are there to support people,” she said.

Sadly, supporting people after a disaster can include coordinating memorial services or helping in other ways people who have lost a loved one.

“I’ve seen a lot of death,” Zylstra said. “As chaplains we have been trained for that. It’s difficult in our culture. The grief process takes awhile. Each loss is individual.”

Her job, when she hears stories of shock, anger and tragedy, will not be to diagnose or treat, as mental health professionals are trained to do. Her job in Oklahoma will be to listen.

“I’m a safe person to lean on — emotional safety. We are listeners primarily,” Zylstra said. “Chaplains, we don’t say a whole lot.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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