Like most of you, I have shed many tears over the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. I grapple with the overwhelming senselessness of it all. I can barely process the unspeakable pain that will haunt the families who have lost their cherished, innocent children, mothers, daughters or siblings. I have only an intellectual understanding of the trauma that will haunt the survivors who witnessed the massacre, as well as the lasting impact it will have on their entire community. As images of funerals, tiny coffins, and grieving loved ones infiltrate the media, the tears resurface and I continually shake my head in disbelief.
As a clinician who has an expertise in trauma, many colleagues have asked me for guidance in handling this horrific event with clients. When tragedy strikes, I think we are hardwired to immediately ask “why?” It is untenable to not have an answer. Not having answers increases our sense of helplessness about a situation that has already left us feeling vulnerable and disempowered. In this case, asking “why” could lead to important conversations about mental illness, lax gun control laws and the frightening accessibility of assault weapons and bullets, the impact of dysfunctional family dynamics, missed red flags that were indicative of sociopathy or untreated trauma, etc. But in the end, there is an inherent senselessness to these tragedies, and no answer ever really satisfies.
Instead, I’d like to offer some things to keep in mind when processing these kinds of events, particularly with our clients. Many people who have prior histories of trauma interpret these tragedies as “proof” or “evidence” that the world has been and always will be an unsafe place. This can create a downward spiral of cognitive and emotional distortions, and I think it’s important to help clients maintain a sense of balance or perspective while still giving them the opportunity to express their fear, grief or anger. When we overgeneralize and think “everyone is evil” or “every environment is unsafe,” our lives and relationships get marginalized and we become re-victimized.
It is easy to focus on what we can’t control, and to obsess about how scary that is as we go through our daily lives. The counter-balance is to remind our clients of what they can control and to help them stay pro-active in those arenas. I believe the best responses to acts of evil are acts of kindness. Encourage your clients to do something that honors the memory of those children and keeps alive the notion that there is still goodness in the world. Whether it’s signing a petition to change gun control laws, advocating for the increased availability of mental health resources, donating money or services to help the stricken families and community of New Town, or reading to children who are hospitalized during the holidays, “doing something” is what helps us attach meaning to these kind of senseless crimes. It is also a way to help clients recognize the difference between their past experiences- when they were truly powerless- and the present- when they can respond and make a difference.
As we compassionately help our clients navigate their emotions, remember to help them keep alive feelings of gratitude. Tragedies are opportunities for us to focus on what we do still have, and to reconnect with the people and relationships that are often taken for granted. In the earliest stages of tragedy, it seems impossible to focus on gratitude. Our anger and grief can trump everything else. But when we are ready, there is great healing to be found by re-embracing and acknowledging all that we have to be grateful for in our lives.
Lastly, the issues of faith and spirituality can be sorely tested during these times. Clients can feel legitimately “betrayed” by a higher power that “allowed” something so awful to happen. My belief is that God is not in these heinous acts. He gives us free will and the choice to harm others is a choice that man makes. God is in the aftermath: the grace, resiliency and inner strength we eventually discover in ourselves. He is in the newfound meaning and possibility of healing and growth that can follow in the footsteps of trauma. He is in the “coming together” through beautiful acts of kindness and support that this community and other communities around the country and even the world will discover, in time. Prayer and faith can be great sources of comfort. So even when we are angry with God, we are still connected to God. And that relationship can sustain us even in our darkest times.
Below are links to documents from A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools: Sixth Edition and Comprehensive Acute Traumatic Stress Management, both publications of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. They include useful information for assisting professionals in addressing the emergent psychological needs of those impacted by this tragic event.