Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series about healing following the Oct. 1, 2015 tragedy at UCC.
The light is changing, trees are turning yellow, mornings are cool, and fall is in the air…and it has been almost one year since the UCC tragedy, a year that forever has changed so many lives, and our community.
The changes in light, color and season key our senses and trigger reminders more so than the days on the calendar. It is our senses that activate memories, and spur our bodies to remember, remember, remember, and challenge us all to heed the aftermath. There is no timeline for healing, grieving, or recovery. The path is often circuitous and long. And there are parts of us, our lives, our community that are changed, that we cannot recover, and our grief remains an enduring expression of our love for those lost. We are also a community of great strength, compassion, and resilience and these qualities too have a voice and a presence.
It has been 50 years since the first mass shooting at a college in Austin, Texas and on their “anniversary” leaders reflected, “we did not know then what we know now about responding to trauma.” There is much that can be learned of trauma, recovery, and resilience from communities like Austin, Oklahoma City, and Charleston as well as learned from those in the field who have studied, researched, learned, and understand the impact of traumatic experience on individuals, organizations, and society. And, from survivors, scientists, and community leaders alike the message is consistent and clear: “we did not talk about what happened enough and we tried to move on too quickly.” Our cultural norm holds the mistaken belief that if you talk about the trauma you make it worse, and cause continued pain and suffering, and therefore not talking about it aids in recovery. This myth, and mistake, has more to do with an individual’s discomfort than what a survivor or community may in fact need or want. Of course there is an appropriate time, place, and language to use to support healing and recovery, but silence drives the trauma underground and it has no pathway for expression, integration, or dissipation in our lives.
Forgetting is not healing and silence is not recovery.
Any community large or small that faces the aftermath of a mass shooting also faces enduring public health concerns that are magnified in communities plagued by socio-demographic risk factors, high levels of violence, and denuded systems of care and response.
Beyond the initial aftermath of the tragedy, the enduring effects ripple outward, and inward, sometimes visible, often unrecognized as aftermath even to those suffering the most.
The desire to have the impact of the traumatic event “go away,” to no longer affect the community at large, to shed being defined or identified as a community by this one event in our history…these are commonly held feelings that emerge after a tragedy. Hidden among the deep desires to get back to normal and “move on” are a host of concerns that communities grapple with, openly or in isolation. Opportunities to openly convene, talk, support one another, and heal are essential.
The unfortunate and seldom talked about truth is that many communities become fractured and divided by such tragedies for the wound is not seen or articulated, and does not heal without skilled and sustained attention, recognition, and care.
In families, schools, or workplaces, a discourse ensues over how to respond to the trauma itself. On the one side are those who want to move on, to put the tragedy behind them as quickly as possible — surely this is the best for everyone? On the other side are those deeply impacted by the trauma, those who live with it every day whether we talk about it or not. Without a story, a narrative, a pathway for telling or processing what has occurred, the trauma will find a way to surface, and declare its presence, its impact and reality, through symptoms or behaviors that often wreak havoc on survivors’ lives – just as the original trauma has done before. Some will spend every moment of their waking existence trying to stay busy, occupied, numb…anything to keep the memories and feelings at bay. And it is this struggle and structures set in place to avoid the traumatic memories that cause ongoing distress and further disrupt relationships, connections, and a sense of meaning in life.
Anniversary times/dates present specific challenges. Developing a toolbox of healthy coping skills and strategies, and taking exquisite care of oneself can prevent unhealthy problematic behaviors from taking hold. Some examples are too much drinking or drugs to numb oneself, too much eating or too little, cutting or self-harming acts to physiologically stabilize emotions, isolation and disconnection from those we love, simply doing anything to ease the pain; all are efforts to avoid the remembering, the re-experiencing, the distress of the trauma.
Sustained avoidance in an individual or community assures that trauma will take an insidious foothold. Not to ask, listen, hear, or want to talk about the tragedy or abject loss is a form of denial. And while we all know distraction can provide temporary respite and relief, it is not an effective long term solution. Our culture too often reinforces this haste to deny and forget, as it suffers frequent amnesias from historical trauma.
Those least impacted by events (and sometimes those most tormented) are the most outspoken in urging the community to “return to normal,” “move on,” “overcome and transcend” the tragedy, without realizing or recognizing the harm of such advice as it prevents the natural healing process and further marginalizes those who are having the most difficulties, those who suffer in isolation, and those who translate this message into “if you are still having problems there is something wrong with you.” Quite the contrary.