As the Oso mudslide’s one-year mark approaches, emotions run high

OSO — A year of grief.

By Sunday, families will have lived a full cycle of birthdays and holidays without the 43 people who died in Snohomish County’s worst disaster.

Those most affected by the Oso mudslide have the chance to gather Sunday at sacred ground, at a sacred time. They’re calling it a remembrance.

“Sometimes I feel like March 22, 2014 was yesterday. At other times I feel like March 22, 2014 was years ago,” said Dayn Brunner, whose sister, Summer Raffo, was killed in the slide as she drove on Highway 530. “For me, it’s a milestone. Emotions are running high with a lot of people.”

In the Stillaguamish Valley, Ground Zero is the area that used to be the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. A moment of silence is planned there at 10:37 a.m. to coincide with the exact time that Hazel Hill crumbled on the opposite bank of the river.

The event is not open to the general public. Authorities plan to close the surrounding stretch of Highway 530 for the memorial, from 9 a.m. to noon. They’re asking airplane and helicopter pilots to avoid the area out of respect for the mourners.

The observance includes an honor guard and a color guard, with a bell tolling for the lives lost.

Planning has been sensitive.

Marking the first year will hold special significance for survivors, said Karla Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at State University of New York at New Paltz.

“It’s more than symbolic. There’s something very real about that: ‘I’ve gone through an entire cycle without the person,’ ” Vermeulen said. “It’s not just the emotional loss of your spouse or your child, it’s also the personal changes in your life that this brought about.”

The ceremony will be different from ones that will come in five or 10 years. Over time, the focus often shifts from the dead to the living. Vermeulen said she observed that later anniversaries following the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing included picnics, concerts and fun runs.

While healing progresses, it’s never complete.

“There is no such thing as closure,” Vermeulen said. “People don’t spend a year in mourning and then reach some magical moment where they’ve put the loss behind them.”

Observing the first year since the disaster can be therapeutic for some. For others, it will be a difficult time when emotions come welling up.

“They often do cause an increase in distress, because it focuses on the loss,” Vermeulen said.

Not everyone will attend. That’s normal.

Survivors might prefer to spend time with family, in private. Others might opt for a vacation. Some might feel as though they’ve been grieving every day, and see no need to set aside another day.

Grief counselors advise people to make their own choices.

“Don’t feel obligated to participate in something that you don’t feel right about,” Vermeulen said. “With these collective events, there’s almost that pressure to attend the public ceremony.”

Until February, a few different groups had been making separate preparations for Sunday. Snohomish County got involved to help coordinate the varying plans. It was a complex process and not all families agreed on the best way to go about it.

“Family members are at different stages of the grieving and healing process,” County Executive John Lovick said. “We have to respect that.”

Feelings remain as raw as the mile-wide scar the mudslide left through the valley. For many survivors, so do circumstances.

As they struggle to cope with their sorrow, some are still fighting to right themselves financially, even to find permanent housing.

The county changed the program for Sunday’s remembrance several times last week, trying to balance competing desires.

One rift opened over the extent to include not just families, but emergency workers. While one faction pressed to give families more private time, a majority favored a bigger role for emergency workers.

“In everything that we did, we wanted to put together an event that gave the families the private time that they needed, which will be at the start,” Lovick said. “Some of the families also have a desire to have first responders there and to have community members there.”

Firefighters and police officers, search experts and foresters, plus legions of volunteers toiled for months in the debris field, looking for human remains. Searchers found the last of the 43 victims, Kris Regelbrugge, four months to the day after the mudslide. She was under 18 feet of dirt and debris.

Brunner helped plan Sunday’s event. To the extent possible, he hopes it provides everyone what they need.

“It’s part of my healing,” he said. “It’s part of this community’s healing.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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