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Responding to the Sandy Hook shooting: How to cope with tragedy

December 20, 2012

In some ways, it seems impossible to write anything about the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and yet I want to reach out.  What can anyone say about such a loss?  I cannot imagine the feelings of the families whose children and loved ones have died.  Or the feelings of the children, teachers and families who were traumatized even though they escaped physical harm.

My thoughts and my heart have been drawn to the stories of courage and compassion associated with this event.  I guess this is one of the ways I cope—after feeling the sadness and fear that are normal responses to loss and violence, I turn towards stories about how the teachers, other school personnel and first responders protected the children and their co-workers from harm as best they could.  Some literally died protecting the children and I don’t know what could be more heroic than that.  In addition, I see the wisdom that emerged as the adults moved children to the safest locations they could find and later considered how to get the children out of the building once it was safe for them to do so.  Having the children walk with their eyes closed while holding on to one another prevented them from seeing images that would be hard for their minds to erase.  One teacher had the presence of mind to make sure the helpers who came to her door were actually helpers by asking to see their badges.  The children and families were directed to a nearby fire station to safely reunite, taking everyone away from the emotionally disturbing and potentially dangerous school building.

Clergy members pulled together to provide comfort and spiritual support, finding common ground between their denominations.  Community members have volunteered to prepare an unused middle school as an alternate site for Sandy Hook students and teachers to use once they are ready to go back to school.  Mental health professionals are offering guidance as to how to listen and talk to children.  One such handout from the National Association of School Psychologists is included with this post.   Their website has additional information at

Local government, school and law enforcement officials in our own community and across the country are responding by reviewing school safety and strengthening protection practices.   I think we are all doing what we can.

I think one of the greatest miracles of humanity is our resilience.  We have the ability to cope and recover from tragedy.  As funerals and memorial services begin, families and loved ones are already expressing their gratitude for the gift of having those who died in their lives, while acknowledging that they are gone too soon.  The pain of the loss is raw and yet there is optimism in thinking about how these individuals made the world a better place while they were here.  That optimism is an element of resilience.

One of the privileges of working in health care is seeing how families reach out to others after they are faced with illness and loss.  From allowing the surgery of their child to be observed as it occurs via live Twitter feed, to sharing stories of healing on this blog or in the news media, to starting a foundation or making a donation in memory of a loved one, families commit to using their experience to help others facing similar challenges.  Some years ago I learned about a very effective driving education program presented in high schools—this program paired a man whose wife and 8 year old daughter were killed by a speeding teen driver speaking with the teen who caused the accident.   To me, the ability to turn this loss into a program to prevent future losses like it is the very definition of resilience.

Marie Martinez, Operations Manager at the Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families shared a news story link this morning that I find very heartening.  Ann Curry, from NBC News, describes her idea to honor the lives lost at Sandy Hook by completing an act of kindness for each life lost. As this story says, “If you do good, you’ll feel good.”

I’m not suggesting that anyone ignore the very understandable feelings of sadness and horror that we feel when events like this occur.  As a counselor, I encourage people to voice feelings, and I believe in the value of sharing grief with others.  Part of parenting involves guiding children in meaningful expression of grief or sadness and comfort in times of fear.

After the initial emotions subside, other feelings emerge.  If we get stuck, what can emerge is a terrible emptiness.  We can also get stuck in anger and become bitter.

One of the gifts we can offer one another is understanding when we’re stuck.  We can then offer a way out of emptiness and anger.  We can work together to transition to resilience.  Here are a few suggestions to facilitate the transition:

  1.  Be sad, be scared, be horrified, be angry.  Let your feelings have their day.  Express them in the way that works best for you.  For some of us, it is saying them out loud and sharing; for others, it is writing in a journal; for others, it is praying or seeking a spiritual outlet.
  2. Listen to news that makes you feel better.  If shared grief works for you, you can read articles or watch news that allows you to share the grief with others.  It is also alright to avoid news coverage if you find it draining.
  3. Observe your children to see what works for them.  Realize that your children may cope best in ways that are different than what works for you.
  4. It’s OK to avoid what doesn’t make you feel better.  I don’t like what I call mean advocacy—this is, the expression of one’s own beliefs when it involves telling other people they are wrong or stupid.  I avoid reading or listening to outrage that gets really partisan or political or mean.
  5. Connect with family, friends, community.  Giving support feels as good as receiving it.
  6. Find a way to act when you’re ready.  Whether it is joining Ann Curry’s campaign to commit to 26 acts of kindness, or another way, action can help us feel better.   I miss my parents at holiday time and one way I remember them is by giving gifts in their honor.  Whenever we asked my father what he wanted on a gift-giving occasion, he would say, “Just get me socks or underwear.”  After he died, I decided to give socks and underwear to homeless shelters on his birthday, on Father’s Day and at Christmas.
  7. Ask for help if you or your child needs it.  Post-traumatic stress symptoms can impact observers of tragedy as well as people directly impacted.  If you’re concerned about yourself or your child, find a resource and address your concerns.
  8. Trust your own resilience and teach your children about resilience.  It helps to know we can and do bounce back.  I know I wish I bounced more quickly sometimes but I do find it helpful to know the bounce will come eventually even if I don’t feel it yet.
  9. Live in the moment and appreciate small joys.  One of the ways I think children lead us is in their ability to move between happiness and devastation.  Toddlers and teens alike can be totally bereft one minute and then laughing like they’ve never been upset in the next.