Desks, books, libraries, gymnasiums, lockers, friends, teachers and cafeterias are all images associated with high schools and universities. But when these images are replaced with scenes of violence, blood-shed, terror, guns and death how do students and teachers cope? What do they do with those images?
The killing of seven and wounding of others at a private Christian college in Oakland, California in April was the most recent in a long list of school shootings in the United States. In February, in my hometown, we observed first-hand the horror of a high school shooting when a student at Chardon High School opened fire in the cafeteria and killed three students and wounded two others.
The images and stories have become all too common. In April 2007, 33 people were shot on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Virginia. In 2006, a gunman killed five girls in an Amish school in Pennsylvania and a teenage school girl was killed in Colorado when a gunman opened fire. A student in Tennessee shot an assistant principal and a Minnesota schoolboy killed nine and then shot himself in school shooting in 2005. The columbine shootings led to the death of 12 students, a teacher and the two high school student shooters in 1999.
When the unthinkable, unimaginable, and unpredictable occurs, we are shaken to our core. Our sense of control and security fades and is replaced by feelings of vulnerability and fear. Witnessing, experiencing, and living through a traumatic event changes how we think, what we believe, and how we feel.
In the days, weeks, months, and years that follow a school shooting, we search for answers that can’t be found. We seek to understand the motivation of the shooter, question the security of the school and look for ways to feel less helpless as a community.
After the Chardon High School shooting, our community came to realize what those in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Minnesota, California and Colorado learned which is that as a community we will be forever changed by the tragedy. Initially, we focused on dealing with the acute grief as we mourned with the families, buried the children, emotionally cared for our own children and those who witnessed the shootings, and supported our teachers and administrators as they struggled to return to the school and guide and educate our children as before. However, as time has passed, the needs of those who witness the tragedy have become greater.
As a psychologist, media contributor, neighbor, parent, and friend in a community that has joined the painful list of cities where a school shooting has occurred, I am mindful that our emotional wounds are still so fresh. In turning to those victims from the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings for guidance and wisdom on the coping process many years later, I am reminded that the emotional wounds and images remain forever but learning to live well with those wounds is the hope. Actively dealing with the trauma from the early phases is the best hope to achieve integration of the horrific images and thoughts to facilitate healing through the years that follow. To that end, I hope the following information will guide those who are dealing with the tragedy of school shootings through a lifelong journey of healing.
Both children and adults who have witnessed traumatic incidents may experience flashbacks in which images of the traumatic scene can be re-experienced through all of the senses as if it were actually occurring again. This can happen through nightmares or can be triggered in the day by a sound, a smell or a visual reminder of the incident. It is common to feel restless, unable to concentrate, preoccupied with thoughts accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety and fear, such as headaches, nausea, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and fear of leaving the house.
Those who may not have actually witnessed the trauma of the shootings may still suffer with symptoms as they vicariously experience the trauma through hearing the stories of eyewitnesses. This may include our reporters who interviewed witnesses, the school administrators who may have viewed surveillance tapes of the incidence, our first responders on the scene (firefighters, EMT and police) and professional mental health providers who provide counseling. Most importantly, the parents of those children who were eyewitnesses to the shootings may experience significant symptoms as they listen to the recounting of the horror that was observed. Feelings of anxiety fear and vicarious images of the shootings coupled with feeling inadequate to help, can lead to symptoms of poor energy, sadness, impaired concentration, and interrupted sleep. These symptoms should be monitored and professional help obtained if they begin to interfere with normal daily functioning. Further, it is critical that those who help others are mindful of seeking support as well. We will not be able to help our children or others if we do not take care of ourselves. This is a particularly important message for our teachers and school administrators who are in the unique position of protecting, supporting, and educating our children in the midst of the crisis that follows a school shooting.
Coping: Practice patience. It is our natural tendency to want to fix a problem or feel the need to distract those who are suffering by trying to encourage them to think about something else. Unfortunately, people who have witnessed trauma either directly or vicariously, through hearing or imagining the scene need to be given the opportunity to “tell the story.” They need to feel secure that those who are hearing what they have to say can “handle the information.” They may need to describe it several times while including what they were thinking and feeling. Listen. Advice is not what is needed but rather comfort and security in knowing that you can, in fact, handle the details. Advice and guidance will have a role at a later time.
Actively Listen. Listen to what your children are actually telling you they are thinking about. We often think we know what our kids are feeling. For example, it would be a natural thought that children would be afraid to return to the school building or for children in other districts to fear that this could happen in their school. We may be right that these are the fears but they may also be dwelling on something that we did not anticipate. Ask and listen.
Helplessness. Nobody enjoys the feeling of helplessness. We all want to feel that we have control over most things in our lives. However, when the unpredictable occurs we are left feeling vulnerable, weak, and anxious. It is important in small ways to begin to focus on what IS in our control. We need to do this for ourselves and our children. We need to help children see what we as parents and authority figures in the school are doing to keep them safe.
Come up for air. While it is important that as a community you talk about what happened and learn the details, we also need to know that is healthy to take a break from the trauma and come up for air. Coping and grieving is a marathon and not a sprint. We need to reserve our energy and coping skills to carry us through the process. So, take a break from the news, try to have family conversations about other topics. In our community of Chardon, there are still signs, ribbons, balloons and messages of support and hope throughout the neighborhoods and surrounding cities. These images provide support, encouragement and comfort. However, it is also sometimes necessary to escape the reminding images and give yourself permission to take an alternate route or to avoid the visual reminders during times when you need to “come up for air”. This holds true for the students as well. At some point, the cards, balloons, messages and memorials that served to comfort and support through the acute trauma may need to be replaced with normal images of school hallways without memorial reminders, unadorned lockers and school signage that promote events and accomplishments without memorial items of candles, bears and photos. The timing of this transition should involve active dialog between students, administrators and teachers. A permanent memorial may be considered as a place for reflection and comfort and can serve to replace the ongoing visual reminders throughout the school building; the school grounds and community which may inadvertently hinder the healing process.
Stay Present: The bulk of the needed support will be in the months and years that follow. When the funerals are over and the memorial services have ended and time passes, the shock will fade and the true pain will settle into awareness. It is at this time that the children, the parents, and friends will need ongoing and consistent support. The natural tendency for our brain is to block and filter information during traumatic times. This is what we mean by shock. We may know the detail of what happened but our emotions are somewhat disconnected from the story. This is what is happening when we hear people say “it was like a dream,” and as they are talking about the horror you may not be seeing emotion. The shock phase is the brains desire to try to slowly bring the emotion together with the actual event. It is protective and necessary. When it begins to fade, a variety of emotions will begin to flood in and will come and go over time, including anger, sadness, despair, and raw pain. Community and professional support is often most needed at this time.