Grief counselors offer solace amid tragedy

Updated 10:00 PM EDT, Mon July 23, 2012

Story highlights

Disaster counselors require an inner-strength to work in a tough field

The theater shooting in Colorado hit "very, very close to home"

Counselors can experience their own emotional toll

There are checks in place ensure they don't suffer secondary trauma

(CNN) —  

Picture the monumental task of counseling strangers affected by a horror worse than they’ve ever imagined.

Now, imagine spending an entire career doing that, year after year.

Regularly exposed to the aftermath of deadly attacks and natural disasters, grief counselors face the fury of Mother Nature and the worst of humanity – while leading the effort to counteract it with the best.

Those who sign up for disaster counseling require a demeanor, depth and inner-strength to keep going, experts say.

“Our job is to provide psychological first aid and to help people find their strengths,” says Margaret Charlton, a psychologist who has been handling calls and walk-ins at a hotline center here in Aurora, Colorado, since Friday’s massacre at a midnight showing of the new Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Remembering the victims

“In this type of shooting disaster, the unexpectedness of it is a big part of the difficulty for unsettling families, because they want to know why. And we know after we’ve done this for a while that there often isn’t an answer as to why. So you’re trying to help people move past that without being able to know,” she said.

The center and its partners spoke with about 200 people within 24 hours of the shootings, and more have been coming in since.

Many are locals who knew victims. Some are even relatives.

“One woman lost her daughter who had small children,” says Holly Cappello, one of the counselors here. “And she didn’t know how to exactly go about talking to the small children about this loss.”

So far, the task of these counselors has been first to express sympathies for any loss, says Cappello, “then try to sort out from them what it is that they need in this moment.”

They listen, offer words of support and encouragement, and focus on helping in pragmatic ways to relieve other concerns – getting families help for planning memorial services or financial support. “So part of it is education,” says Cappello. “And part of it is accessing resource