WAUKESHA — On Friday afternoon downtown Waukesha was a scene of peace and quiet. People grabbed coffee to go, perused items in stores or went for a casual stroll in the heart of the city. Slightly worn Waukesha Strong signs hung in some business windows.
The scene was nothing compared to almost a year ago when the scene was full of abandoned strollers, discarded blankets, police tape and parents screaming their kids’ names. People impacted by the Christmas Parade tragedy have fought hard to get through the past year. On Monday the national spotlight on Waukesha and the memories will come back as the alleged perpetrator, Darrell Brooks, goes on trial.
Brooks, 40, is accused of driving his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas Parade route on Nov. 21, killing six people and injuring dozens. He is charged with 77 crimes, including six counts of homicide by the use of a dangerous weapon and dozens of counts of recklessly endangering safety. Brooks withdrew his request for an insanity plea and requested to represent himself in court, which Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow granted.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly told The Freeman the trial “will be a circus.”
“It is terrible for the people who will testify. The defendant is entitled to a trial. The end result is going to be that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. For the community, I wish we get through it quickly,” Reilly said.
The mayor said people who were victims of the parade, which is the entire community, are going to have to relive everything.
“They are going to hurt from it. If it was ignored (the trial) we would all be better off,” he said.
Reilly added Waukesha has come together to help each other. This trial will be difficult but the city is going to remain positive and provide ways for people to heal, according to Reilly.
“We are going to have a ceremony for the anniversary of the parade. We will be doing blue lights again for Christmas. We will be working towards making sure we are positive,” Reilly said.
The United Resilience Center, which was recently created, will have a person who answers the phone to direct people to different resources and services. The phone number will be active at 9 a.m. on Monday. The number is 262-522-0243.
Rachel Reinders Saeman, Ph.D., assistant professor of community psychology at Alverno College, attended the Nov. 21 parade. Her children are enrolled in the School District of Waukesha. Reinders Saeman described the ordeal as very confusing, which led to trauma particularly for kids.
“They just saw everyone was scared and even if they didn’t see anything bad happening they saw the adults around them were a little panicked,” she said.
Many children did see horrible things such as people being injured, which was hard for them to process, Reinders Saeman said.
Her young son called it “the parade with the problem.” He witnessed the parade moving along and then it stopped and people were told to leave.
Reinders Saeman said that during the trial, there will be details about the parade and “the horrible things people experienced.”
“That can be retraumatizing for people. It can remind them of these things that they maybe haven’t been thinking of as much lately,” she said.
Reinders Saeman said Brooks will be asking witnesses and people impacted direct questions.
“That could be a very upsetting situation especially without that professional barrier of someone else doing the direct questioning,” she said.
There are many business owners, witnesses and residents who become silent when the topic of the parade comes up. They avoid speaking about it.
“In that moment it might make someone feel better. It doesn’t help prevent the problems from coming up again in the future. If someone is experiencing intense anxiety or sadness when they do think about it, it might be a sign that they should talk about it in a safe place like with a counselor,” Reinders Saeman said. She also pointed out due to the unusual situation of Brooks representing himself, there will be a lot of coverage on television. She suggests people limit exposure to that coverage.
“Maybe set a limit to how many times you check in on it. Try to not let it become an extreme part of your day,” she said.
When approaching an event that may be triggering, like the trial or anniversary of the parade, a person should think about how they will cope, according to Jessica Lahner, Ph.D., director of the MS in Behavioral Health Psychology program and clinical associate professor of psychology at Carroll University.
Lahner said when working with a client, she helps them create a cope-ahead plan. It anticipates the reactions that the person might have and provides a plan in place to help support them. Lahner added it minimizes that retraumatizing experience.
“Make an active decision and take control over it,” Lahner said.
A cope-ahead plan could mean making a decision about how much television you will watch. Maybe the plan would be to just watch coverage during the 10 p.m. news summary.
Another part of the plan includes ensuring you have the social support you need. She suggested going for coffee with a really good friend on Monday as the trial starts.
Make sure you get good sleep and that you are fueling your body appropriately and exercising. Taking care of your body physically will help you cope in a healthy way.
“When we do experience memories, and that will happen, we might have a flashback if we have scenes in our long-term memory from that moment. Reminding ourselves that memories are not dangerous is important,” Lahner said.
Also, she added, reminding ourselves that we are safe in that moment and the memory, while painful, is not threatening.
For the latest news on the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy, click here.