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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