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Trauma, grief and guilt: The many layers of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy

“What we saw at the hospital yesterday was survivors’ guilt,” Kennedy said. “The survivors’ guilt of, ‘My teammate didn’t make it. It should have been me. My son is still here and I can’t celebrate that because there are other parents who have lost theirs.’ ” — Sheldon Kennedy

HUMBOLDT, Sask. – Sheldon Kennedy has been at the Elgar Petersen Arena since 4:30 this morning, which in and of itself is pretty unique. “I was never early at the rink,” Kennedy quipped.

Kennedy, the former NHLer turned mental health and abuse advocate, has become a de facto spokesman during the aftermath of the worst tragedy in Canadian sports history. And he’s uniquely equipped for that role. He knows trauma, having survived the Swift Current Broncos bus crash that killed four young WHL players on a Saskatchewan highway 32 years ago. He knows recovery, having overcome his own demons. And he knows that the one saving grace of this whole thing is that we’re far better equipped to deal with tragedy than he and his teammates were more than three decades ago.

“To know better is to do better,” Kennedy said. “And we know better today.”

There are so many layers to this tragedy and how people here are dealing with it. It’s creating feelings that are almost impossible to process. If you’re a parent or family member of a player who survived, how can you be happy that your child was spared? How on earth should the parents of 18-year-old Xavier Labelle, the young man who was thought to be dead, but was tragically mixed up with teammate Parker Tobin? How can anyone possibly understand the depth of sorrow of Tobin’s parents, who were looking at Xavier Labelle in a hospital bed thinking it was their own son until they found out their son was dead?

As you can imagine, the scars that are being left on people here will take a long time to begin to heal. There is no timeline and there is no right or wrong way for people to grieve.

“What we saw at the hospital yesterday was survivors’ guilt,” Kennedy said. “The survivors’ guilt of, ‘My teammate didn’t make it. It should have been me. My son is still here and I can’t celebrate that because there are other parents who have lost theirs.’ The billet families are probably feeling the same thing. When you look at the billet families, I think it’s important to tell them that it’s OK to feel that sense of gratitude – gratitude is not the right word – that sense of feeling that they’re thankful that the person that was in their home, that they probably grew to love, is with them today. And that’s OK.”

There has been no shortage of those wanting to help people through this process. One Broncos team official who played hockey with Sidney Crosby’s father got a text from the NHL superstar asking him what he could do to help. The money totals are becoming staggering. A GoFundMe page that hoped to raise $10,000 after the accident has now exceeded $5 million. And the Saskatchewan Junior League announced Monday morning the creation of the SJHL Assistance Program, which will direct money toward members of the Broncos and the league’s 11 other teams who have been affected by the tragedy. It is teaming up with Federated Co-operatives Limited to raise funds for the assistance program. Federated Co-operatives challenged its retailers to donate funds that would be matched by the head office up to $500,000. It’s expected that mark will be hit easily. Part of the issue here is that the GoFundMe page is a private one, so corporations cannot make donations to it. So this offers a vehicle for the private sector to get involved. Where the money ultimately goes is still being worked out.

“I’m not a professional in that area. I have no clue,” said SJHL president Bill Chow when asked what the players and others will need from the assistance program. “I’m not sure where that will lead us, but wherever that is, but hopefully we have the resources to be able to assist and help. I don’t know.”

But this is about so much more than money. As Kennedy pointed out, the money is wonderful and will do so much good. But it’s also about the culture of the game that is changing. When the Swift Current tragedy occurred, there was almost no outside help available to the players. (Kennedy said that was partly because the coach Graham James, who was later convicted as a pedophile for sexually assaulting Kennedy and others, discouraged players from seeing counsellors, “because he had his own secrets.”)

But if the public outpouring of grief is any indication, much has changed since then. There do not need to be any stiff upper lips anymore.

“We definitely didn’t know the impact of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and mental health and the impact of trauma, I can tell you that,” Kennedy said. “Back 32 years ago we didn’t even talk about this stuff. It was basically, ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and let’s get going here.’ And this isn’t just about players. You look at the tentacles of the impact that an event like this will have, it’s going to be massive.”