AVALANCHE UPDATE: ‘All emotions are normal in such an abnormal event’; free help available to those needing it


Anna Eckhardt is a crisis intervention expert, so at least she knows why she’s having trouble remembering things this week.

“Memory can be affected by a crisis,” she said during a meeting with Longyearbyen’s English-language community at the Kulturhuset cafe Wednesday, where she and other officials discussed last Saturday’s avalanche, and its short- and long-term aftermath. “You may have super memories, exact details, remembering 20 seconds like they’re in slow motion – or the contrary.”

“I’m realizing going from meeting to meeting that I need to keep a log,” she added.

While some people may feel they’re experiencing inappropriate emotions such as “positive feelings” or indifference, the important thing to remember is “all emotions are normal in such an abnormal event,” said Eckhardt, a local private-practice psychologist recruited by the city due to her previous work as a trauma specialist.

“Many are filled with grief, finding it devastating beyond words,” she said. “However, we also know there are people in the community who feel emptiness, who don’t feel much in particular. That is also common after big incidents like this, especially in the early phase. It can be very hard to grasp, to take in what has happened.”

Formal and information counseling is being offered for those still struggling and – unlike typical therapy involving a neutral analyst – many local listeners are obviously able to relate firsthand to the struggles of their neighbors and friends.

Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, among those offering words of comfort to others since the tragedy, sang in the Store Norske Men’s Choir alongside Atle Husby, 42, who was killed when he trapped inside his buried home.

“In these past days we in the choir have been hugging each other more than we have for the past 10 years,” Helgesen said.

Dozens of people, including numerous friends of Husby’s came to the church the day of the avalanche to light candles, and share memories and prayers. Helgesen said he expects the grieving to be prolonged – and there will be “a lot of uncertainty when the children come back” from their school holiday at the beginning of January – but so will the the spirit of support.

“We are fragile as a small community,” he said. “There are small limits between life and death…but there’s also a strength in the community as we saw on Saturday when so many people acted, and tried to dig and help.”

“I’m proud of being a citizen of Longyearbyen these days.”

Keeping an eye on each other is important since people may not be aware of behavior that’s being influenced by the crisis, Eckhardt said.

“In the school, for instance, it will be important to talk about the kids’ academic achievement and stress levels,” she said. “Academic achievement is often affected by great big tragedies.”

Another problem is people can become careless, leading to mishaps seemingly unrelated to the avalanche.

“Normal everyday security doesn’t feel that important anymore,” she said. “I can imagine people might be driving without a seat belt or driving too fast because it’s not that important, or not wearing safety reflective vests.”

People shouldn’t be overly worried about unusual feelings in the short term, but “if reaction don’t decrease, or even increase over time, then it’s time to seek help,” Eckhardt said. The University Hospital of Northern Norway in Tromsø has agreed to provided financial support for people needing professional therapy, with the condition they consult a doctor for an initial assessment and referral.

Those wishing to consult a local doctor can call Longyearbyen Hospital at 7902 4200.
A hotline for people seeking psychosocial support for themselves and/or others is available from noon to 3 p.m. daily at 9401 0753. People wanting a more informal setting to talk to someone can contact Svalbard Church at 7902 5560. Additional information about common reactions to a crisis is available at Norway’s Center for Crisis Psychology website.