Originally created 09/17/97

Survivors to receive counseling



It is only an invitation to breakfast, but it still sends chills down Neita Mulherin's spine.

The letter that came this week about the annual legislative breakfast for area children's advocates reminds her of one she attended six years ago, a day at work she barely survived.

Her trials in overcoming the shooting in 1991 that left her gravely injured and a co-worker dead are lessons she can share with those who lost four co-workers and family members Monday in Aiken. It's important for survivors not to blame themselves, to talk openly about the incident and channel their anger into something positive, said Diane Solursh, a psychologist who has counseled survivors of deadly shooting sprees.

Officials at R.E. Phelon Co. announced Tuesday that employees will be brought in for two to three hours of counseling today to help them cope with the tragedy.

It is a road Jo Gibson knows all too well. She was working in the Johnston, S.C., post office on Aug. 19, 1983, when she turned and saw former mail carrier Perry B. Smith come through the back door with a shotgun. As she sprinted for the front door, Mr. Smith leveled the gun at her but didn't fire because someone was in the way. She managed to get outside and drive off as Mr. Smith chased her and shots rang out. He then killed her friend, Postmaster Charles McGee.

She went back to work the next day.

"You don't know what to think about because you're still in shock," she said. "You just get through it. You just survive."

It helps to talk about the loss and let out those feelings in conversation with friends and family, said Dr. Solursh, who counseled survivors of the 1991 shooting.

"You're going to go back to that work place. You have to come to terms with that," she said.

What they shouldn't do is feel guilty about getting out alive.

"You feel, `Maybe I could have stopped him. There must have been something I could have done,"' Dr. Solursh said. "In most circumstances, there's very, very little anyone can do."

Returning to the scene is something Mrs. Mulherin faced after that day of the legislative breakfast on Oct. 8., 1991, when she was director of the Community Mental Health Center in Augusta. A patient, Stephen James Lawrence, was waiting outside the front entrance of the center with a shotgun as Mrs. Mulherin and some co-workers left for lunch.

His shots cut down Ms. Mulherin and Betty Van Alstyne and two others, killing Ms. Alstyne. When she thinks back now, Mrs. Mulherin is grateful to the surgeons who saved her life. But she still had to go back months later and go through that front entrance again.

"I just worked and kept going and tried not to panic," she said. "It never got where you didn't think about it. You just have to get on with your life."

Even people who didn't know anyone at the Phelon plant may be outraged by the shooting and that "is an absolutely natural, appropriate action," Dr. Solursh said. It is important to channel that anger, however, into something positive such as "These people have families. Is there anything we can do to help the families?" she said.

It was that kind of response that Mrs. Mulherin still carries with her.

"I got notes and cards from people I had never heard of and never met, notes from Sunday school classes just saying they had been praying for me. That meant so much to me."

And there is the key to survival, she said.

"The ability to have a positive attitude when you realize there is more good in this world than evil."