SACO, Maine — Grief counselors, school administrators and members of the clergy mobilized this week to respond to an increase in calls to a crisis hot line from people seeking support after the brutal murder-suicide involving a family of five.
Late Saturday night, 33-year-old Joel Smith shot and killed his wife, Heather Smith, 35; his 12-year-old stepson, Jason Montez; and his two biological children, Noah Montez, 7, and Lily Smith, 4, before turning the gun on himself.
Since then, community leaders and advocates have encouraged those who knew the family to seek help as they struggle to accept what happened, and to help their children face the deaths of their friends.
At Saco Middle School, where the popular Jason Montez would have been in seventh grade in September, mourners spoke with grief counselors Tuesday and Wednesday, while a “trauma team” of administrators and guidance counselors began to form a plan for helping students — and faculty — cope with the tragedy, according to Saco Superintendent of Schools Michael Pulsifer.
But Pulsifer said Wednesday that staff members were still reeling themselves, and primarily focused on simply getting through the next few days.
“It’s going to take us awhile,” he said. “There are some things we’re still dealing with. We’re going to have to have long discussions during a less stressful time. We haven’t even gotten through the funerals.”
Crisis workers at Caring Unlimited, a domestic violence program in York County, have seen an increase in calls from people seeking support, including parents seeking guidance for helping children grieve, according to spokeswoman Emily Gormley.
Although students won’t return to classes for another month, even those who didn’t know the victims personally have heard the shocking news, and many stood outside the Smith’s Water Street apartment with their parents during a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening.
Dawn Tarbox said at the vigil that she told her 7-year-old son that his classmate Noah Smith had died, but that the child hadn’t immediately asked further questions. When her older children asked how such a tragedy could occur, she told them she didn’t know.
Susan Giambalvo of Portland’s Center for Grieving Children on Wednesday praised Tarbox’s instincts with her young son.
“Follow the lead of the child,” she said. “In that case, the child got the information he needed in that moment. That’s perfect, and you don’t need to talk to him about anything beyond that. But a child might come back with more questions, or even ask the same questions again. Often young children don’t understand the permanency of death, and they’ll need to ask over and over and over.”
Gormley advised asking children how they feel, and then talking about those feelings and reassuring them their feelings are normal.
“When we don’t talk to kids, they take on this feeling of they’re not supposed to talk about it, and that’s when they might keep everything in and struggle with things down the road,” she said. “It’s really important to open those lines of communication with kids.”
Both recommended honesty that is age-appropriate.
“I don’t think by trying to hide things or keep things from them that we necessarily help them make sense of it — to whatever extent you can make sense of it,” Gormley said. “As adults, a lot of times we want to protect kids from horrible things, but they know so much, and if they don’t know it yet, they’re going to learn it.”
Strong support from the entire Saco community will be crucial to moving past the tragedy, according to Kevin Jordan, superintendent of schools in AOS 94, which includes the town of Dexter.
Three years ago, Jordan faced a similar crisis when beloved kindergarten teacher Amy Lake and her children, Coty and Monica, were murdered by her estranged husband, Steven Lake, before he killed himself on June 13, 2011.
Jordan said “an incredible support network” formed in the Dexter community after the Lake murders — and he said he sees a similar network forming in Saco.
“It’s really a communitywide effort when you have a tragedy like this,” Jordan said Wednesday. “Everybody’s involved. There was great support in the community — the same thing we’re seeing in Saco. There were vigils, and the local clergy were amazing as far as offering services for kids and opening up their homes. An incredible support network just seemed to arise in the community.”
Giambalvo said Tuesday’s vigil was an indication of that network forming in Saco.
“It was a beautiful example of the community coming together and creating that space for itself to grieve the losses,” she said.
Some people may want to seek counsel but aren’t ready to talk yet, Gormley said, adding that support will be available when they are ready.
“I think as it all sinks in, people will get to a place where they need to talk,” she said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.