Supporting Mass Shooting Survivors - What To Say And Not To Say

It has been over a decade since the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting when I laid on the floor, and pushed against a barricade to keep the shooter out while bullets went over my head.  From 2007 to 2015, I was in denial that the shooting impacted me. It’s silly now, when I think back on it. How could I have possibly thought that the shooting didn’t impact me? But I did.

After the shooting, family, friends and others wanted to be supportive, but they didn’t know how.  They made comments. Some were helpful, others weren’t. Unfortunately, there is no guide for what to say to someone who has survived a shooting or witnessed a casualty. Everyone is just winging it and trying to stay positive.

I think it’s worth listing some of the comments that were and weren’t helpful.  How can others know what to say in the future if we, as survivors, don’t speak up and share what worked and what didn’t.  I’ll start with the not-helpful comments first. It is worth emphasizing that I truly believe that these comments were meant to be helpful. However, they actually had the opposite effect. So here are a few things that you are better off keeping to yourself. 

“You are so strong.”I’m glad you think I’m strong. That makes one of us. Because I don’t’ feel strong. I feel weak. I feel vulnerable. I feel lonely. I would remind myself that this comment was said with good intentions, but it never resonated with me or made me feel better.

“Don’t worry.”Wait, what? A gunman attempted entry into my classroom and you are telling me not to worry.  Unfortunately, everything you say will now go in one ear and out the other. I don’t feel safe right now. I am worried. And it’s OK to be worried.

“It won’t happen again.”There is no guarantee that it won’t happen again. Telling me that it won’t happen again doesn’t help me feel safe.  Sometimes, they would continue with “You are more likely to be struck by lightning than experience an active shooter event again.” Quoting statistics doesn’t help either.

“We Are Virginia Tech”Oh, the slogans? Or maybe there are catchphrases? I’m still not sure what to call them. Every tragedy has them.  We are all Columbine. Vegas Strong.  At the one year anniversary, it changed to Vegas Stronger. These words are meant to show community support, but I think they end up bothering survivors more than helping. It felt the trauma I experienced was labeled with a catchy bumper sticker.

So you are probably wondering what can you say to a survivor that won’t upset them. Here are a few things that I found helpful:

“It’s OK to not be OK.“ I think this one speaks for itself. You are letting them know that you don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to fake it till you make it. It validates their feelings and their experience. 

“Just checking in. How are you feeling?” If they feel like opening up, they will. If they are not ready yet, they probably won’t. It’s important to respect both. Lots of things take time. Opening up is one of those things.

“Thinking of you.”  This is most applicable for upcoming anniversaries (one month, one year, two years, every year….) But these words are simple and powerful. There is no pressure to respond. No pressure to answer any questions. These three words can go a long way.

Most of the time, a good rule of thumb is less talking and more listening. We often think that when someone starts talking about how they are struggling, that they are looking for advice. Listen carefully, did they ask for advice? If you have something to share that you think may help them, ask them first if they want your two cents.

When I reflect back on the time since the Virginia Tech shooting, I am taken back by how naive I was to believe that I wasn’t affected. I stopped listening to what people said because I didn’t find it helpful. I stopped feeling because I didn’t want to feel the pain. Recovery is a process that requires time. My hope is in sharing these words that I found helpful and not helpful that someone else can better support another survivor in need.

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Back-to-School Advice for Shooting Survivors

I remember as a kid when I used to get excited for a new school year. I would look forward to back-to-school shopping, new clothes, and new school supplies. I would look forward to finding out my class schedule, and which friends I was going to have class with.  

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My heart aches for the students who aren’t going to have that this year. My heart aches for the students who have survived a school shooting and don’t want to return to school. My heart aches for those who have witnessed school violence and are experiencing high anxiety as they are fearful to enter the classroom again.

I grew up in middle-to-upper class suburbia.   Helicopter parents, and chain restaurants. Kids wearing Abercrombie and moms driving minivans. I felt safe all the time. But onApril16, 2007, that sense of safety was stripped from me. I was sitting in class at Virginia Tech when I heard an unfamiliar popping sound that sounded like gunfire. During the next eleven minutes, my classmates and I laid on the floor pushing the desks and chairs against the door while the gunman shot at our door and tried to push it open.  In those terrible minutes, the gunman killed 30 students and professors, and wounded and traumatized many more.  

My recovery journey was far from perfect, but I eventually found my way through the fog. When I reflect on recovery, I realize I learned a lot about counseling, boundaries, confidence, self-care, and feelings. This stuff isn’t taught in school. You learn it by observing those around you. 

For those of you who have survived a school shooting or witnessed school violence, I want to share with you what I learned as you re-enter the classroom this school year.

First, going back to school was harder than I expected. I had a tremendous fear of a shooting happening again. Many people would tell me that it wouldn’t happen again, but I thought to myself, “they don’t know that.” I finally accepted that there is no guarantee it won’t happen again. 

Second, I learned to feeltheuncomfortablefeelings.I felt survivor’s guilt, fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessnessandself-doubt. I learned thatthesefeelings were tellingme something. They were telling me that I didn’t feel safe. As time passed, I was able to rebuild that sense of safety.

Third, I foundgoodlisteners. My recovery made great strides when I began connecting with others affected by school tragedy. These people helped me feel less lonely. We bonded.  We connected on a level deeper than I connected with some of my closest family and friends. 

Getting back in that classroom will be one of the biggest challenges in your life.  So here’s my advice: Trust your gut. Listen to your feelings. Write in a journal. Talk to your friends. Hugs your friends. Trust yourself. Don’t compare yourself. Ask to step out of class when it feels uncomfortable. You got this!

 

 

Marshall County High School, My heart breaks for you.

Marshall County High School, My heart breaks for you. Last week your school experienced something horrific, something tragic, something you never imagined in your worst nightmares. January 24, 2018. This is a day you will never forget.

Whenever I hear about a shooting, which seems to be more and more frequently, it motivates me to write. I want to share with you what I learned after the Virginia Tech shooting. As I reflect back, I realize how young I was at the time. But you are even younger than I was.

Be cautious when people tell you how you should feel.  Many people like to tell us how we should feel.  But many of them didn’t experience what you experienced. You don’t have to you let these comments in.  Recognize that these people may be trying to help you, but they just don’t know how to help you.

Resilience on the outside doesn’t necessarily correspond to resilience on the inside.  People may tell you how strong they think you are, or maybe they tell you they are surprised that you are taking it so hard.  Either way, don’t let their assessment of you become your assessment of you.  I let other’s comments convince me that I was OK, and I didn’t realize I needed help.  Your gut will tell you know you are doing, and listen to it.

Going back to school will be hard, very hard. I was a junior at Virginia Tech when the shooting happened. During my senior year, I hated being in the classroom. I hated when books would drop and made a loud noise. I picked my seat strategically, depending on the room and what my escape plan was. I knew going back into the classroom was going to hard, I just didn’t realize how hard.

If you think you might need help, try counseling.  Prior to the Virginia Tech Shooting, I had never been to counseling. I didn’t know how it worked. You have to be honest with yourself and with your counselor about everything, even the things that you don’t think matter.  You have to trust your counselor with your most vulnerable feelings.  You have to show up to counseling, both physically and mentally.

Recovery isn’t just for those physically injured. We don’t always know when someone is struggling, since most of the time, we can’t see their pain.  After the Virginia Tech shooting, I didn’t know how to deal with my pain.  I thought recovery was for those that were shot. I didn’t realize that I was going to have my own recovery journey as well. Recovery requires addressing your emotions related to the shooting and regaining a sense of safety when in public. It’s easier said than done, so take it one step at a time.

Most of you are probably between fourteen and eighteen years old.  For many, this is probably life’s biggest hurdle for you so far. When we find ourselves going through a difficult time, we may feel trapped and unsure of how to continue on with life.  We can't go around the pain, but we have to work through it.  When we "work through" our uncomfortable feelings, we address them, not ignore them.  But be kind to yourself, and compassionate, and forgiving, as you figure it all out.

 

 

When Life Gets Hard, Build a Toolkit.

Heather Martin, a Columbine survivor, wrote in a Letter of Peace, “I believe that if we took the time to notice, we’d see we’re infinitely more connected by our similarities than divided by our differences.”  I believe this is particularly true for the pain we experience during life’s struggles. The emotions we experience during life’s hardships - whether it is schools shootings, cancer, losing a loved one, or a sexual assault - is more similar than we think. 

We don’t always know when someone is struggling, since most of the time, we can’t see the pain.  After the Virginia Tech shooting, I didn’t know how to deal with my pain.  Years later, when I decided I was ready to address the mess inside my mind, my counselor recommended that I build a therapeutic toolkit. The purpose of the toolkit is to have various tools, or options, that I can choose from when I’m experiencing uncomfortable feelings.  When we experience tragedy or loss, it seems like the uncomfortable feelings - sadness, loneliness, anxiety, anger - are unbearable.

I think that building a toolkit can better prepare us when life gets hard. Because let’s face it, life can be brutal sometimes. The toolkit can include whatever you want - it’s your toolkit to help YOU. Here are a few of the tools that I put in my toolkit.

Journal

Writing is very therapeutic for me and was a critical piece to my recovery. I have a tendency to blow things out of proportion in my mind. When I turn to my journal, I can break things down. I remind myself that time will pass, the feelings are temporary, and it helps me get through tough times.

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Good Listeners

Find friends and family who you can talk to, and who listen. I half joke that dogs are the best listeners because they can’t talk back. Find people who listen without giving advice when you didn’t ask. Sometimes, we just want to get things off our chest and talk through them.

Walks and Exercise

I have to be careful here because I abused exercise before I had a toolkit. But now, walking and exercising is one of many options in my toolkit. So depending on how I’m feeling and what I think I need, I can go for a walk or choose one of the other tools. Walking, while listening to music or podcasts, helps me release stress and worry.

Books or magazines

Reading a book or magazine is another good option.  I like to read books that remind me that uncomfortable feelings are a part of being human.  I remind myself that right now I may feel pain and sadness, but it is only temporary, and eventually I will feel love and joy again. I remind myself that I can’t pick and choose the feelings I let in; I’ve got to let them all in.

When we find ourselves going through a difficult time, we may feel trapped and unsure of how to continue on with life.  We can't go around the pain, but we have to work through it.  For the longest time, I didn't know the difference between avoiding the pain versus dealing with the pain. I've learned the difference is that when you "work through" your feelings, you address them, not ignore them.  Addressing your feelings can be hard and uncomfortable, but that's where the toolkit comes in. The toolkit won't do the work for you, but it helps you get through the difficult times.