Five-year-old Arnaud Villemaire-Poulin has been scared of trains in the year since the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that left 47 people dead.

In the weeks following the July 6, 2013, derailment that also wiped out most of his downtown, Villemaire-Poulin was diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He lives part of the time in Lac-Mégantic with his mother, Lyne Poulin, and his two sisters, Megane and Juliette.

After the tragedy, he and Juliette, who was nine at the time, had terrible nightmares. He was scared of another explosion. Orangey-yellow lights and unknown sounds frightened him. Juliette was scared her mother would burn to death.

'The past winter was really tough.'- Lyne Poulin, Lac-Mégantic resident

His sister taught him a trick to feel better.

“My sister told me to think of unicorns — it’ll make you think of things you like, instead of scary things,” he says.

Since the fall, Arnaud had been doing well. However, when the train came back into town, the nightmares started again.​

Lyne Poulin says Arnaud is always checking for the “flammable contents” sign on the back of train cars and trucks. He gets scared and agitated when he sees one.

LISTEN | School routine helps families deal with trauma in Lac-Mégantic

The mother of three says she had been coping well with the disaster in her town, but things have changed.

“At first, I was really positive about everything, that everything was going to be OK, but after a couple of months of being around people who needed help and that weren’t doing as well as I was, it began to affect me. The past winter was really tough.”

Poulin sought psychological help, but even now says she’s very tired.

A suffering community

The social worker who treated Arnaud and Juliette, as well as hundreds of people in Lac-Mégantic, says he has heard the story of the tragedy a thousand different ways.

As the first-year anniversary of the tragedy approaches, many in the town are still suffering, Normand Grimard says. When he asks people on a scale of one to 10 how bad the symptoms are, some tell him it’s a 20.

Normand Grimard

Social worker Normand Grimard has treated hundreds of people in Lac-Mégantic, Que., for post-traumatic stress disorder in the past year. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Grimard says every time he has finished treating someone and they start feeling better, another person walks into the office with a similar story and a similar problem. He has never had to deal with an issue of this magnitude in his entire 42-year career.

The social worker has managed to keep a balance, finding comfort in painting and singing with his wife, but sometimes he, too, has trouble sleeping.

'Indescribable' grief

With anniversary events starting on Saturday, he expects Friday will be a long, busy day at his office.

He says some people will feel worse than they have in weeks; some will feel panicked. He says it’s important for those people to express their fears and feelings.

Grimard says mental-health professionals generally know how long it takes people to heal after a tragedy, but he doesn't know how long it will take the small town to collectively get better.  

He calls the grief in Lac-Mégantic “out of the ordinary” and “indescribable.”

He doesn't know what the long term effect will be either, but he expects some people will need years of therapy.

Even so, Grimard says marking the one-year anniversary is important for some to move on.

“It’s not fun to go back there,” Lyne Poulin says. “But we've got to do it. Especially the first year. It was a really, really, big year and there are a couple more coming. We’re not done here yet."