As Norway names dead, religious leaders and counselors offer comfort to a nation
The Oslo Cathedral, a hub for memorials to terror-attack victims, is offering nightly services to give Norwegians a place to grieve over last week's violence.
As Norwegian police begin naming the victims from last Friday’s terrorist attacks, adding a human face to the country’s loss, caregivers and aid organizations say they stand ready to help the public sort out its raw emotions.
Survivors and mourners alike are still coming to grips with the heavy death toll from the shooting spree at the lake island of Utoya and the bombing in downtown Oslo which killed at least 76. Many are particularly disturbed over the mass murder on Utoya, where police claim Anders Behring Breivik shot 68 people – many of them in their late teens and early 20s – dead at a summer camp.
“Everyone seems beaten,” says Oslo resident Sigvald Sveinbjornsson, calling the deaths “extremely meaningless.”
“It’s impossible to comprehend,” he adds.
Investigators have portrayed Mr. Breivik’s actions as chilling, saying he hunted down the campers, many of whom hid in the woods or dove into the lake to escape. The attacks have triggered an outpouring of sympathy both at home and from abroad, with world leaders and Norway’s institutions offering their support.
Police have provided grief counseling and lawyers to the victims to help them navigate the impending legal process. The University of Oslo has opened telephone lines and prayer rooms to those seeking solace, and made the university’s priest available to students.
The Oslo Cathedral has also become a magnet for memorials and visitors. A gathering of flowers and flags that began on Friday outside of the church has only grown, engulfing much of the adjacent square.
“It has been overwhelming,” senior pastor Elisabeth Thornsen says of the response. She says the church now has to restrict the number of visitors inside the cathedral at one time after a small fire broke Monday night from candles placed throughout the building.
To meet the demand, Ms. Thornsen says the cathedral has extended its hours and will offer services every night this week. She says the state church has sought to give the public a space to grieve but also impart a sense of hope.
“I think it’s important to give a sense of peace; to let people feel what they feel and try to give room for that,” she says. “What I feel is very important is to say what the church always is saying; that there is hope. We believe in hope.”
Astrid Arnslett, spokeswoman with the Norwegian Red Cross, says its volunteers have been working with the authorities since the afternoon explosion in central Oslo. She says the organization has aided with search and rescue operations amid the rubble and on Utoya as well as provided psychological care to victims from both attacks.
Mrs. Arnslett was with many of Utoya’s victims over the weekend, sorting out practical details like finding new pairs of shoes and offering a shoulder to cry on. She says the mood was mixed as victims, overjoyed to be alive and reunited with friends, increasingly became filled with a sense of survivor’s guilt after it became clear dozens had died.
She says as more and more names are released, the number of those grieving will only increase, since victims on Utoya hailed from across the sparsely populated country. As a result, the Red Cross is keeping its centers open nationwide and is preparing to stay in touch with victims as they leave Oslo for home or head back to school.
“These young people have been through things that we’ll never understand,” she says. “Some of these kids will need people to talk to for a very long time.”
Experts agreed the healing process would be long and difficult for those who lived through the attack, especially the young. Rather than trying to shield them from what happened, officials said it is best to keep them informed and open to discussions.
“The more they understand the better they cope with the situation,” says Reidar Hjermann who serves as the country’s ombudsman for children, an independent position appointed by the government that investigates the care and livelihoods of children.
He doubts the attacks would ultimately scare young people away from politics, instead predicting they could fuel their interest in activism. In any case, he said the attacks would be seared into the public’s conscience, which in the end may serve to benefit Norway’s future generations.
“It is important to remember so that we can work to prevent such a thing in the future,” he says.