I never thought I would experience violence like this. And, when it first happened, I erroneously thought that I was immune from it happening to me again.
My whole understanding of the world around me changed when a gunman came onto my college campus and open-fired in a lecture hall back in 2008. As an undergraduate student in my freshman year at Northern Illinois University (NIU), I was confused and angry at the man who acted out this senseless act of violence on my campus – my home. There are no words to describe the experience of listening to helicopters overhead and sirens on our campus, and seeing the Illinois State Police with guns drawn roaming my residence hall. I felt completely disconnected from my support system and my home-away-from-home had suddenly been turned into a circus – media crews, government officials, security personnel, and counselors invaded our campus for weeks following the trauma.
Now, almost ten years later, I am working as a trauma therapist in a community impacted by the largest mass shooting in US history. Waking up to news of the gun violence that took place on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday evening shook me to my core and brought back many uncomfortable memories from my past. Listening to stories of how this senseless act of violence is impacting members of my community, colleagues and clients breaks my heart, but I find solace in knowing that I have survived this kind of overwhelming grief in the past and I will do it again.
I’m not writing this blog post as a therapist. I’m not writing this post to tell you how to grieve. I am writing this post to let you know what worked for me – as another human being impacted by a senseless act of violence, as a person who has been there and as a person who has recovered. I never thought that I would need to use the knowledge I gained from my personal trauma recovery journey in the exact same way again, but here we are. For me, reducing exposure to media coverage and prioritizing my self-care are the two most important things I need to do right now.
Reduce exposure to media coverage
After the NIU shooting in 2008, I sought comfort in trying to learn everything I could about the events that took place. I tried to make sense of a senseless act of violence by filling in the pieces of my awareness. I watched media clips, read news articles, and spent 24 hours a day researching, watching and re-watching the traumatic events unfold. This was not helpful. Continued exposure to the traumatic events through news clips and video footage has the potential to escalate your trauma. Survivors may feel the need to watch and re-watch these videos to help clarify what happened and to gain further information, but “both short-term surveys and long-term studies have shown that the number of reported posttraumatic stress symptoms seems to be associated with the hours of media consumed” (Haravuori et al., 2011, p. 71).
In the past 24 hours, I have attempted to reduce my exposure to media coverage, in order to prevent re-traumatization. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, I would encourage you to do the same. How? I am playing CDs in my car all week, so I don’t hear news updates on the radio. I have decided to avoid social media for a couple of weeks and have adjusted app settings to stop receiving push notifications from social media sites on my phone. And, I am avoiding live TV and news coverage, by watching Netflix instead of cable TV.
Resource loss after an act of violence like this includes both tangible and intangible losses. “Some individuals who … experience no significant material loss still experience significant and persistent distress after [this type of] event … [because they] may have experienced losses of highly valued intangible resources” (Littleton et al., 2009, p. 216).
Tangible losses include people, such as friends, family members, acquaintances, and colleagues who died as a result of the shooting. Intangible losses include material possessions and personal belongings, such as cell phones, wallets, and other personal items abandoned at the scene of the crime; conditions such as employment and leisure; interpersonal aspects including intimacy, affection, and social support; and intrapersonal aspects including a sense of direction, meaningfulness, hope, and optimism.
Self-care is critical in trying to maintain a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope in the wake of trauma and connection is crucial to reduce interpersonal losses. One of the things that stands out to me the most about the grieving process following the NIU shooting is how the whole NIU community came together to support one another in grief and healing. It’s natural to develop emotionally intimate bonds with others who have experienced the same type of fear, trauma, and grief as you, when it feels like no one understands. And, as a community, we were able to move forward together.
I know now that putting on a mask and stuffing all of the uncomfortable feelings inside will not help me and can potentially isolate me further from my support system, resulting in compounded inter- and intrapersonal losses. As a result, I am making it a point to continue attending yoga classes, to practice loving-kindness meditations, to spend time in nature, and to talk about my experiences. Disconnecting from social media allows me to make thoughtful connections with my community. I am finding comfort in re-playing the messages of strength I heard from the local leaders in the wake of the NIU shooting and remembering the community healing that was so powerful in 2008.
Each persons’ grief process is unique. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but I urge you to do so in a healthy manner. Avoid numbing emotions with drugs, alcohol, gambling and other potentially harmful behaviors. Be gentle with yourself. Seek comfort in friends, family, and other loved ones. Find ways to tell your story. And, as always, take care of yourself first. I wish you peace.
If you are experiencing overwhelming grief, shock, or other uncomfortable emotions in the wake of this senseless act of violence, please contact me to schedule a free phone consultation to see if therapy can help. I will be taking new clients in November 2017 and am happy to provide you with a list of referrals for other local therapists as well. Please note that in order to prioritize my own self-care, I will be unavailable by telephone and e-mail from Saturday, 10/7/17 – Saturday, 10/14/17. In order to honor my need to reduce media exposure at this time, social media posts and weekly blogs will resume on Sunday, 10/15/17.
Haravuori, H., Suomalainen, L., Berg, N., Kiviruusu, O., & Marttunen, M. (2011). Effects of media exposure on adolescents traumatized in a school shooting. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24(1), 70-77. doi: 10.1002/jts.20605
Littleton, H., Grills-Taquechel, A., & Axsom, D. (2009). Resource loss as a predictor of posttrauma symptoms among college women following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Violence and Victims, 24(5), 669-686. doi: 10.1891/0886- 6708.24.5.669