After San Bernardino, crisis counselor faces her own grief

AP News
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Posted: May 31, 2016 5:53 PM
After San Bernardino, crisis counselor faces her own grief

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Crisis counselor Mandy Pifer has spent the last six years comforting people in the aftermath of death, including a woman whose sister killed herself with an electric chainsaw and an 8-year-old girl who found her mother shot to death on their couch.

But nearly six months ago, it was Pifer herself who was plunged deep into grief when her boyfriend was among 14 people killed in the San Bernardino attack. She left counseling to mourn, retreating into her Koreatown apartment filled with the couple's photographs.

Last week, she drove to the Los Angeles Police Department to meet with crisis-team colleagues, many of whom she had not seen since the December shooting. She wanted to return to work, but she also wondered: Was she ready to go back behind the yellow tape?

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Pifer was one year out of a long-term relationship when she decided to try online dating. Shannon Johnson's profile picture immediately attracted her. He had a warm smile and his orange tabby, Jerry, peeked over one shoulder.

They started chatting and quickly decided to meet for a date at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Inside its ornate marble halls, they talked about growing up in the South — he in Georgia, she in Tennessee — and moving to California as adults.

Johnson wasn't like people she had dated before. He had full sleeves of tattoos and had spent 10 years traveling across the country as a truck driver. At 42, he was also twice divorced. Both of them, she said, had barriers up.

Johnson wasn't afraid of marrying again, but he didn't want another divorce, she said. Pifer, who was then 37, feared getting hurt.

"It was the scariest experience of my life. I used to tell him it felt like I was hanging on to the edge of a great, deep pit," Pifer said.

Six months later, Pifer was on the hunt for a new apartment. A studio across from Johnson's apartment opened up. He told her she should move in.

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Pifer first learned about the mayor's crisis team when she was a graduate student studying clinical psychology. A friend passed along a police bulletin calling for volunteers to respond to homicides, suicides and death notifications.

"I remember thinking, I want to do that," Pifer said. "Somebody has to."

Soon enough, she had graduated from training and was crossing behind the tape at some of the city's grisliest crime scenes. Her job was to counsel those with no relatives or friends to console them.

Dozens of calls linger in her memory: the first time she smelled death, the first time she had to walk around the block to compose herself, the first time she accompanied police on a death notification.

"I learned to never be looking someone in the eye when they receive news that their loved one had died," she said. "Because I saw their heart break."

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Pifer awoke Dec. 2 to found a text from Johnson.

"Have a great day," he wrote. "I love you."

By that time, the two had been together for three years, their belongings scattered across both apartments. One was known as the couple's "West Wing," the other the East.

Johnson worked as a health inspector in San Bernardino, an expansive, mountainous county east of Los Angeles. That morning, he left early to attend his department's holiday gathering.

The couple imagined moving out to the desert when Johnson retired in another 10 years or maybe returning to the South. On his computer that morning, Pifer found an internet browser opened to a page showing properties for sale in Georgia.

Pifer was meeting with therapy clients when the first reports of an active shooter in San Bernardino came in.

She sent Johnson text messages. No replies.

When Pifer called the crisis team's director that afternoon, he assumed she was offering to help console survivors and victims' families.

"No, no, no," she told him. "I can't get a hold of Shannon."

Then, as she was driving home, she listened to the radio and heard that the shooting had happened at a meeting of workers for a division of the San Bernardino County Public Health Department.

Pifer immediately pulled over.

She knew.

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In his last moments, Johnson had huddled with a colleague under a table, shielding her from the bullets.

"I got you," he told 27-year-old Denise Peraza. The phrase soon became a trending hashtag on social media.

The days that followed passed in a blur. There were interviews with reporters, calls from politicians and a hug from President Barack Obama. Pifer began making plans to start a foundation to spread Johnson's message of compassion.

She wasn't in denial, but as a crisis counselor used to consoling others, she perhaps wasn't certain how to grieve her own loss.

She wanted to make sure the affected families were getting services and arranged for therapeutic miniature horses to visit bereaved relatives.

Three months later, the anguish hit.

"Getting out of bed," she said, her voice trailing. "I just didn't do it."

It's now been another three months, and the pain might be letting up a bit. She can now listen to the songs on Johnson's iPhone playlist that hummed like a soundtrack in the background of their lives together. She wants to return to work.

Still, the grief comes in jarring waves of pain, with triggers she is still learning to detect.

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Pifer turned off her car's ignition outside the LAPD office and climbed the stairs to the police bureau, immediately spotting an old friend.

Burnett Oliver wrapped her in a bear hug. Pifer wept.

"Give it time," he said, patting her on the back.

Two days later, she was back on the roster for an overnight on-call shift from home. She still wasn't sure how she'd feel going out to a police scene, but something had changed.

"I realized that, you know, I need to go back, because a large part of my identity is helping others," she said. "I refuse to live in a world of fear."

As she got ready for bed, she kept her fully charged phone nearby. A photo of Johnson in a frame with the word "Love" rested on her nightstand.

She waited for the phone to ring.

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Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario .