This past Sunday, a young man entered a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and injuring 20 more. This attack undoubtedly triggered the pain of previous mass shootings — the most recent in Las Vegas — for millions of Americans across the country.
Though there will be solace in coming together, lighting candles and sitting vigil in memory of the victims, there is little we can do to change the horrific reality that innocent civilians were killed in cold blood. And we must allow ourselves the space to fully grieve before trying to return to a time before the terror.
As we view images of the carnage, we look for explanations for the inexplicable, feel stricken by the madness of a man who intentionally opens fire in a house of worship. We talk about it, even ruminate, maybe send money for the victims’ families.
We may feel guilty that our first thought is to check on those we love, and then feel relief to find all are safe. We have no power to change what happened, so we numb ourselves and attempt to get on with our lives, in the hope that we are among the lucky ones who will continue to remain unscathed.
But for those who were present at the violent killing, and for those who were related to or loved a victim, such carnage is a life-changing event. Every moment from that day forward is seen through the lens of before and after, as if a guillotine sliced through time itself.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound, and everyone related to the victims will experience significant trauma. The shock is so great it feels surreal, and just getting through the next hour seems overwhelming. There are waves of anger, denial, rage — guilt for being alive. There is a restlessness, a searching and not finding, an inability to eat or sleep, periods of crying non-stop or completely shutting down.
It is as if a part of them has died, and they need people close by to hold them when they cry, to bring them food and drink, to help them not be overwhelmed by the replaying of images that send fear rushing through their bodies.
After the first weeks of shock, the pain often intensifies and people in grief wonder if they will ever find a way of living again, loving again. The process of grieving is longer and harder than anybody wants, and there are so many complex challenges to be faced. Every day can feel like an assault: sights, sounds and smells can trigger the trauma cycle, the altered relationship between family members that has to be navigated.
There are no cures or quick fixes for grief. We cannot do battle with these feelings and overcome them; how we heal is by allowing ourselves to feel the pain. But we also must feel the love of and for others. When a loved one has died, it is only love that can help us heal.
There are many practical things we can also do, like writing in a journal, exercising regularly, finding ways of remembering the person who has died. We may even need professional treatment to help us with the trauma, particularly if we are experiencing flashbacks or post-traumatic stress. Anything we do that can stabilize and regulate our system, which may be constantly on high alert, is helpful.
We must also remember that people are as different on the inside as we are on the outside. So friends of those in grief should respond to them with kindness, and not try and force them to tell their story if they don’t want to.
Most importantly, friends need to be there for the long haul. This may take years, but over time and with love, people do learn to rebuild their lives. They will be changed, but their lives will once again include hope and laughter.