Therapists leaped into action after Oak Bay girls were killed

When two young Oak Bay girls were killed on Christmas Day in 2017, Victoria therapists leaped into action.

At the time of their deaths, six-year-old Chloe was in Grade 1 at Christ Church Cathedral School and Aubrey, who would have turned five in January 2018, attended Montessori preschool. They lived part-time with their mother in a house in Oak Bay and part-time with their father in a nearby apartment.

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The day after the girls died, Victoria psychologist Jillian Roberts was called by Christ Church Cathedral School’s principal. Told “something terrible has happened at the school,” she was asked to come as quickly as possible.

By Dec. 27, four sites for grief and loss counselling had been set up: at Christ Church Cathedral School, the cathedral itself, Windsor Pavilion and St. Christopher’s Montessori. A team of about 18 volunteer therapists from throughout the region was organized to counsel children, parents, staff and the public.

Dozens of school children and their families received counselling support at the school and church.

In April, when media began covering the second-degree murder trial of the girls’ father, Andrew Berry, in Vancouver, the need for counselling ramped up again, said Roberts.

“The level of graphic detail [in news coverage] about the children, it was like a wave that shook us,” she said. “So we had to do crisis intervention again.”

Family Sparks, Roberts’ in-person and online employee assistance program, has been providing ongoing mental-wellness support to staff at Christ Church Cathedral School. Members in the community who are “so overwhelmed that they need to come in for support” have also been seeking help, Roberts said.

In her opening remarks at Berry’s trial, Crown prosecutor Clare Jennings revealed that the girls had been stabbed, and jurors eventually heard graphic testimony from first responders, a pathologist and a blood-splatter expert. All of that information was reported by the media, which took Roberts by surprise.

“We were all under the belief that there would be a publication ban on what happened to the children,” she said.

When the girls’ deaths were first reported, and again during the trial, Roberts said she imagined people traumatized by the news flipping through their phone books looking for counsellors.

While there are already too few therapists, said Roberts — who is typically booked six months in advance — many made room in their schedules for those affected by the events and coverage.

“We couldn’t just let it be, so we all had to clear our books,” she said. “We had to do what we had to do to help the community.”

Roberts said her role was to co-ordinate the 17 other therapists who reached out and donated their time.

This time around, the therapeutic community isn’t providing services pro-bono, but it has prioritized appointments for those struggling with the information coming out of the trial to ensure people’s mental-health needs are met, she said.

“It was shocking when the trial started,” Roberts said, “but it has stabilized.”

She said children traumatized by hearing the court coverage can react in different ways, from persistently asking about the topic to totally avoiding it. A change in sleeping patterns and irritability are other possibilities. “Not eating is a big one.”

Assuring kids they are safe and that such events are incredibly rare is important, Roberts said.

Even as a seasoned therapist, Roberts said she sometimes reverts to quoting Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.’ ”

Those helpers came out in force immediately after the girls’ deaths became public.

“When the community comes together and helps one another, there is beauty in that,” Roberts said. “This situation has shown how strong and loving and compassionate our community really is.

“I feel like it was the very best of us as Victorians.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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