HUNTINGTON — Utah's close-knit coal communities, bound tighter by a tragedy that branches outward from 15 families whose fathers, sons and brothers have been trapped, killed or injured in the Crandall Canyon Mine, could come apart at the seams without help, a local grief counselor says.

Rifts have splintered these towns after past tragedies when some miners escaped a disaster that killed others, said Jan Bodily, executive director of Four Corners Behavioral Health. The multicounty mental health specialists have begun offering group grief counseling to miners' families and others affected by two accidents that have riveted the nation.

"Those who make it out are sometimes ostracized," Bodily said. "Some become angry some made it out and others didn't. We don't want those on the rescue team who weren't allowed back in to be ostracized. If you can get people doing grief work together it can pull the community together. If not, it can be pulled apart."

Four Corners counselors held group sessions last week in Price and Castle Dale, educating those affected about what is normal and providing coping tips.

One emotion to expect is anger, the second stage of grief after denial.

"We're starting to see some of that in the families now in the media," Bodily said. "There's starting to be quite a bit of anger."

A national crisis intervention team hired by mine owner Bob Murray left Huntington last week. Bodily praised the help of Murray's team.

"That was a good plan, to have the families see the same crisis counselors every day," she said. "We're really going to deal with the second tier of the crisis."

That crisis could grow more intense if the latest borehole does not find signs of life in the mine.

"I think when it really opens up is when the last hole is dug and when the decision is made to seal up the mine, if it comes to that," Bodily said. "That's when we anticipate our place in the healing circle will be activated.

"Now the sensational part is ending, and the media is starting to leave, but these people are really just at the beginning. Another month from now, everybody else will be gone or will have moved on, and these families will just be starting the journey."

The healing process can be long, a fact many mourners might not realize.

"Grief does not heal by itself," Bodily said. "You have to go right through the middle of it or it'll wait for you for 40 years. The rule of thumb is to give yourself one month for every year you were with the person, and to not make any life decisions for a year."

Four Corners plans to provide weekly grief support groups into October, and perhaps beyond, for adults and children 8 and older. Individual sessions with children and adults have already begun.

The group and individual help is not just for the immediate families. Neighbors and friends can benefit.

"A lot of people have a grief response who don't think they're close enough to have one," Bodily said. "Sometimes those who need it most aren't the ones who show up, so it's important for friends and neighbors to watch for signs and be prepared to help."

Like so many others in Utah's coal belt, where the vast majority of jobs are related to coal, the Four Corners teams are among those affected, with relatives and friends among those caught in the initial collapse that trapped six men on Aug. 6 or the second event that killed three rescue workers and injured six more.

Four children of those 15 men are students in the Emery School District, which gets help from the Four Corners counselors. School started last week.

"We've tried to make it as normal as possible to help them get back to some level of normalcy and let them know they're loved," said Jed Jensen, district supervisor for elementary schools.

Though children might display irritability — and counselors have prepared families and teachers for that — the return to a schedule can be helpful. They might not perform well at first, but just showing up can be a boon.

"Without knowing anything about the individual, it's best to move forward and then deal with whatever obstacles you find," Bodily said. "It's really hard not to have anything to distract you."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com