09 Mar They are us and we are supporting us – Sean’s story
Three days after the Christchurch terror attacks, Sean Edwards landed in Christchurch to begin his role supporting the victims. Based with his family in Auckland, Sean works full-time in banking and volunteers as a support worker. Because of his training as a homicide support worker, Sean was one of those pulled in early to assist in Christchurch. We spoke to Sean about his time there and the ongoing support he continues to provide to the victims.
What can you tell us about yourself?
If you looked at my life, you would not think I am the normal Joe Bloggs, but I do feel I am an average middle-aged male with a particular skew towards family life and community togetherness.
I have a simple approach to life, and that is trying to be a better person today than I was yesterday. My excitement in life comes from the presence of living in today and being that better person.
What inspired you to volunteer with Victim Support?
Coincidentally, it was the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. I saw a media headline saying Victim Support workers were being flown to Christchurch, from around New Zealand, to assist families who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Beneath the article was an advert seeking volunteers to sign up with Victim Support. A month later, I started my formal training, and the rest is history.
I know Victim Support is not everyone’s calling, but I felt I could give back to New Zealand in this particular way.
When you first heard the news about the Christchurch terror attacks, what came into your mind?
I first learned about the events when a colleague at work said: “Have you heard that students with backpacks have been shooting people in Christchurch?”. At first, there was much confusion about what was happening (even in the media) and only later when Prime Minister Ardern addressed the nation did I comprehend the horror of the terror and became shocked and repulsed. I had a sense of the TV coverage being surreal.
Initially, in my mind, I had so many disjointed images about the attack and did not think about my Victim Support duties. I appreciated much initial anger would be experienced by the families who lost loved ones, and they would need much support. At this stage of my thinking, I realised I might have a Victim Support role to play.
How did your involvement come about?
The Saturday after, I received a phone call from my Auckland homicide supervisor asking if I could support families for ten consecutive days.
I am a Homicide trained support worker plus a male, and sadly, very few men volunteer or get involved with Victim Support. But there was no accommodation available, so I was placed on standby. As a Catholic, I solved the accommodation situation by phoning the Catholic Christian Brothers in Wigram who gave me a room for the next ten days. During those ten days, the Christian Brothers saw very little of me due to the long hours I worked, but I was very thankful for the role they played in sheltering me while in Christchurch.
You have a senior banking role, was it easy to arrange to get time off work to go to Christchurch?
At the time, I was the Regional Manager for Kiwibank, having responsibility for several busy Central Auckland Retail Branches. My reporting managers and peers were very supportive and gave me the time off on full special volunteer pay.
My wife and family were also incredibly supportive during a time where life continued in Auckland with children needing to get to school and activities, and so forth.
You’ve had a lot of experience as a Victim Support worker and homicide specialist, what were you expecting as you made your way to Christchurch?
I was expecting to find a tense feeling of shock, disdain and disbelief by people in Christchurch.
What did you find once you arrived on the ground?
Concerning victims and families, surprisingly, I did not find the open anger I was expecting. It was apparent that victims were still in a very acute psychological trauma state and seeking answers to understand ‘why’ such a violent act was carried out. In getting to know the victims, I felt nothing but warmth and kindness from them.
Even working and visiting the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques, I felt embraced and thanked for the support I was providing.
Regarding Victim Support on the ground, we were trying our best for such an unprecedented event. We did receive tremendous support and generosity from locals who went the extra mile to thank us for our support work.
Was it different from what you had experienced before as a Victim Support worker?
Usually, when you get a single case referred to you, the details are well known on the system, and a neat and logical contact process is adopted.
Christchurch was the complete opposite. You had to be flexible. Victim Support people were located at a hub in Hagley Park that was set up specifically for the victims. Victims were coming to your desk and asking for support, and you had none of the details. So, initially, you did not know the exact details of the victims, and in some cases, you had to start from scratch. Somehow you needed to understand how the affected person was involved in the shootings at Al Noor or Linwood Mosques without being insensitive.
The Islamic names were a challenge to record and trying to create family trees was not easy. I was so aware of cultural differences, but I found Muslim people not offended but appreciating I am trying to help and support them.
What was a typical day in Christchurch in terms of the hours you were putting in and the cases you were handling?
I worked 10 – 12 hour per day, for ten consecutive days. I was totally shattered when I arrived back in Auckland.
I have a Masters in Psychology so I could complete assessments efficiently and effectively. This skill helped me a lot. A challenge was ensuring that all my daily writing notes were completed, and any payments were made to families asap.
What are some of the cases that stand out from that time?
The case that stands out for me is a man that was present inside the Linwood mosque and was shot at. The bullets missed him, but several friends worshipping around him died. I am still supporting this person today.
Twelve months ago, I sat in his kitchen, and he collapsed, crying loudly on the floor while telling me what happened. He expressed a powerless feeling about his trauma, and his emotions were like a fire inside him. He saved a small child by pushing him into a washing machine drum, but he lost his best friend and a neighbour on a tragic day.
Over the last 12 months, I have witnessed a courageous, optimistic and determined victim emerging. I have shared meals with him each time I go to Christchurch. I am truly inspired by the way he leads his life and the community events he is organising.
What were some of the challenges?
A lack of education about Islamic culture and faith.
Are you still supporting victims?
Yes, I am still supporting two families and will be in Christchurch the weekend of the anniversary to complete follow up support.
Reflecting on your involvement, what else comes to mind?
A personal reflection from Christchurch was about why can we, as a civilised human, race not ‘crack’ this prejudice issue. Having met so many kind Islamic people during the aftermath, I know the key is getting to know each other better and respecting our cultural differences.
Also, I am very privileged to be working for Victim Support, and it is an honour to be of service to victims of injustice.
What were your thoughts about Victim Support as an organisation around that time?
The key difference for me was Victim Support built trust and support quickly on the ground with the victims and their families in Christchurch. I was impressed with the local Christchurch Victim Support team that formed – and worked many hours into the night.
In my role, I never underestimate the positive impact of just sitting with someone in grief and just listening to them process their emotions. I believe this listening ability is a strength of Victim Support and aids the healing process immensely.