The application of kindness

Flowers laid at the steps of the GPO in Bourke Street Mall. Photo: Zayne D’Crus/Australian Red Cross

There’s an ocean of flowers on Bourke Street, in Melbourne’s CBD. Hundreds gather at its shores, heads bowed.

Three days ago, a man drove his car into pedestrians on this street. Five people were killed, including a baby and a 10-year-old girl. Thirty-three more were seriously hurt.

People are gathered here in shock and grief.

Here and there in the crowd, you can see a flash of red. It’s a volunteer in a Red Cross shirt, talking quietly with somebody who’s struggling to cope.

It’s called ‘psychological first aid’: the act of reaching out to someone who has experienced a traumatic event with the aim of reducing distress and promoting coping mechanisms.

Its practice is far simpler and more tactile than its definition.

Sometimes a hug or a shoulder to lean on can help people heal. Anne’s ready to offer both. Photo: Zayne D’Crus/Australian Red Cross

Psychological first aid is basically looking at people and being able to read where they are at a particular time,” explains Red Cross volunteer Anne Coram. “To help them work through their feelings and understand where they are coming from.”

Anne spots someone in the crowd struggling to hold back tears. She walks up, lays a gentle hand on their shoulder and says, “Hi. How are you doing, love?”

That’s all it takes. Time after time, people simply fold into her embrace.

They talk for a while and then the person leaves, typically after another hug and holding a brochure with self-care tips.

Anne is among more than 50 volunteers, deployed in teams since the incident occurred. They’ve spoken with grieving family members, witnesses to the tragedy, mothers frightened for their own children, emergency services providers and retail store workers.

“People are coming out of the shops on their lunch breaks and they’re often visibly upset,” says volunteer Pam Helnan. “When we go talk to them, they’ve been affected profoundly. This is where they come to work every day. And it suddenly feels unsafe.”

Pam says that the most common question people have is ‘Why did this happen?’ Photo: Zayne D’Crus/Australian Red Cross

People occasionally approach the Red Cross team. Sometimes they ask for directions or information, though it’s clear they just want to talk. Everyone is greeted with a smile, a handshake. Everyone is made welcome.

Allowing people to talk is as critical to their emotional recovery as a bandage is to a wound.

“People can go to a bad place after trauma like they’ve seen,” Anne explains.

“A lot of people are very distressed, some of them are hurt and a lot are very angry as well. We’re trying to help them work through that, and come back to a good place.

“And helping them see that even though there’s a bit of bad in the world, there’s a lot of love, too.”

Later that evening, thousands of Melburnians gather at Federation Square for a vigil for the victims and survivors. Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other charities and emergency services are there, offering a listening ear, solidarity, and the occasional piece of fruit or bottle of water.

Brett and the Red Cross team have spoken with witnesses, grieving family members and people who work in the Bourke Street Mall. Photo: Zayne D’Crus/Australian Red Cross

People are hugging, holding hands, leaning on each other in shared sorrow and comfort.

Kindness is being applied, everywhere you look.

Henry Dow, one of the first to offer help to the injured in the aftermath of the attack, addresses the crowd. He talks of the people who performed first aid, the kindness of the police, the sense of community that everyone shares in this moment.

His message is simple. “If you feel like shaking your head and feeling sad for the state of humanity, I implore you: Don’t.”

Usually the Red Cross team hands out resources on coping with trauma. Sometimes a teddy bear is more appropriate. Photo: Zayne D’Crus/Australian Red Cross

If you need help:

Recovery after critical incidents like this can take time. Talk to your family and friends about your feelings. If you find you’re struggling, you can also contact Lifeline on 1800 543 354.

We also have information to help people look after themselves during crisis events, including important tips about talking to children and young people.

Sign up to our newsletter for more stories like this.

Story by Zayne D’Crus, Australian Red Cross