Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Consoling the living

Tanoa Jones' husband soaked himself in gasoline and looked for a lighter. What happened next is unspeakable.

Now, a year later, Jones is rushing to a house in Charleston Heights where, she's told, two men lie dead. Jones is a volunteer with Trauma Intervention Programs of Southern Nevada (TIP), which provides emotional first aid. It's the same organization that offered her a shoulder a year ago. And on this Monday, she is heading to what the dispatcher believes is a double homicide. Jones gathers her bag, checks her map and responds, not quite sure what to expect. But she's confident she can help.

The Las Vegas TIP chapter is the busiest in the country. It's also the smallest, with just 41 volunteers. They show up at bank robberies. Car accidents. Drownings. Overdoses. Natural deaths. Suicides.

Cops and the coroner's office deal with the dead, and TIP volunteers console the living. Usually it's family members or friends. Sometimes it's strangers who made an unfortunate discovery. They are usually in emotional shock, mentally recalibrating to the sudden loss of a loved one.

In August TIP was called out 124 times, offering support to 428 people suffering emotional trauma. Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said the volunteers advocate for grieving family members and allow emergency response workers to accomplish their tasks.

"It certainly makes our jobs easier," Murphy said.

TIP volunteers aren't counselors. They're comforters, offering their first name and a compassionate ear while spending a couple hours serving as a liaison between the client and emergency workers. When the body is removed and others arrive to comfort the traumatized, the TIP volunteer says goodbye.

It's sad work but, in unexpected ways, rewarding. The volunteers see previously detached neighbors coming out of their houses to help, and police officers who show exceptional compassion.

"I see the good in people a lot more than the tragedy," said Sherri Graves, the organization's crisis team manager and a veteran of more than 200 calls.

But with the rewards comes the burnout because their ranks are stretched too thin. The organization is in the process of recruiting 50 more volunteers, people with compassionate hearts willing to enter into a stranger's nightmare.

People such as Jones.

On this day she is comforting a neighbor traumatized by the gruesome discovery of the bodies in the 6100 block of Shawnee Avenue. She learns from police investigators that the men, who were installing tile in the home while the owner was away, probably died of a drug overdose.

The neighbor, Robert Anguiano, is pacing in his front yard, distraught. Jones, dressed casually, heads way. He wants to talk, and she listens.

Anguiano tells Jones he watches over the neighborhood.

"So you're Papa Shawnee?" Jones asks, making a congenial joke about the street name. Her nose crinkles when she smiles. "Are you OK?"

Anguiano says he's shaken. The house where the bodies were found is owned by his close friend Bonnie Griffin. He was best friends with Griffin's husband, Paul, who died just a few months ago.

In fact, Anguiano says, the Griffin house has been connected to an unusual number of tragedies. A former owner murdered his wife at a casino before being shot dead by police, he said. A house guest died in the pool. Another killed himself in the downstairs' bathroom. Now the two workmen - Anguiano had just met them over the weekend - are dead. His voice breaks. All these deaths.

"I'll cry like I did last time," Anguiano says, reassuring Jones that he's OK. "It'll all come out. I just get the feeling like - what's going to happen next?"

The deaths are particularly hard, Anguiano tells Jones, because he so recently lost his best friend Paul, and also his sister-in-law and grandmother.

"It's a lot to handle right now," Anguiano said.

The two embrace, a long hug between strangers that would be odd under any other circumstances.

On the spectrum of TIP calls, this one was mild. Last year's call to Jones' North Las Vegas home, by contrast, was intense. Brian Jones, doused in gasoline, found a lighter on the front porch and in a sickening flash ended a two-year downward spiral of mental and physical illness. His wife and the couple's 4-year-old daughter saw everything, though the little girl was whisked away as soon as possible. Faint scorch marks are still visible in front of the house, under the front porch awning and on the driveway where children now shoot baskets.

Jones had no extended family in Las Vegas for support that day. Her daughter was home, in the maelstrom of the tragedy, and her two sons from a previous marriage were at school.

Tona Robinson, a seven-year TIP volunteer, was called to the house. The greatest concern for Jones was caring for her children as police, the coroner and cleanup crews converged on the residence. Robinson visited the neighbors who witnessed the tragedy, consoling them and leaving Teddy bears with the children. Later she sent children's books on dealing with death. She stayed with the little girl while Jones picked up the boys and notified them of their stepfather's death.

"She was my angel that day she stayed with me," Jones says of Robinson. "She had (a divinely) appointed time to meet with me, and she was there."

In the initial weeks after the suicide Jones says she was as fragile as a sand dollar.

In time she began regaining her strength and in November, TIP invited Jones to speak at its Heroes With Hearts banquet. She was impressed by the volunteers' strength and, feeling drawn to the program, attended a training session in February.

She grew even stronger.

Today, a Bible rests on an end table in Jones' living room, under a plaque on the wall with the verse: "With God, all things are possible." She's attended grief counseling classes at her church and with the help of a supportive boyfriend, is healing.

Brian Jones' picture hangs in his daughter's room, and his urn rests in the entry of the home - "the first thing you see when you walk in and the last thing you see when you leave," Jones said. "Hello and goodbye." She says she wants to honor his memory in the home.

Nevada is notorious for its high suicide rate - 480 people took their lives in 2004 - and Jones can now empathize with hundreds of families.

She remembers her first suicide call with TIP, in June. A mother dropped her twin 3-year-old boys off at day-care, then went home and overdosed on pills in the front seat of her car. Such suicide calls force Jones to relive her own experience. She said suicides leave loved ones with mixed feelings: anger, because they had other options, and, compassion, because no healthy person would take his or her own life. When she responds to suicide calls, Jones does not tell them her story because TIP volunteers are trained to maintain a distance with clients. But she looks them in the eye and says: "This isn't easy, I know. And I really do know. I know how you feel."

She said some of the loved ones have asked what they're supposed to do.

"I say, 'You take one day at a time, one step at a time, sometimes one minute to one minute.' " Jones is crying now. "They just like you to be there. I've hugged them. I've cried with them. I had somebody hold me so tight I could hardly breathe."

At times like these, Jones said she knows she's right where she's supposed to be.

For information about TIP, call 528-5584 or go to www.tipnational.org.

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