“How do you do your job?”
That’s the shock-infused question Darlene Wahlstrom faces almost daily.
What is her job?
Wahlstrom is one of the first faces a person sees following tragedy – sudden death, suicide, homicide, robbery, break-and-enter, domestic abuse, serious motor vehicle accident, house fire.
She is the face of Chilliwack’s Victim Services.
“I meet the nicest people at the worst times of their lives,” said Wahlstrom, a soft-spoken woman with a steely sense of humour and a go-go-go work ethic.
A former real estate agent and school trustee, it wasn’t until she started at Chilliwack Victim Services in 2005 that she truly felt at home. What started as a volunteer position led to a full-time managerial position in Chilliwack and a part-time position in Agassiz.
She’s on call 24/7.
She skirts out of meetings at the first vibration of her phone.
She sleeps with her phones.
For Wahlstrom, that’s her normal.
“I love what I do, I love helping people,” she said.
Still, it’s a job that could make even the steeliest of people recoil.
She’s seen dead bodies. She’s been with the RCMP to notify next of kin of their loved one’s death. She’s been yelled at, has calmed hysterical tears, has been front and centre at the most heart-wrenching moments of a person’s life.
Again, how does she do it?
“If I knew these people, I probably wouldn’t be able to do the job, I’d be a mess,” she said. “But I don’t know them. I’m there to listen, I tell them what they’re going through is normal.
“You can’t connect it to your own life, because if you do, you’re screwed.”
And because she works so much, going from one call to another, and sitting on several committees, in addition to her family life (mother of three and grandmother of seven), she doesn’t have time to dwell.
One of the hardest things of the job is realizing she’ll never meet the deceased she hears so many great things about.
“I realized one day, after hearing so many wonderful things about this dead person that holy crap, I’m never going to meet this person, and I wish I could, but I never will,” said Wahlstrom.
“I wish I had a magic wand, I wish I could fix their pain, I wish I could bring back their child, but I can’t.”
All she can do is listen.