1. After a mass shooting, what does healing look like?
There’s something strangely delicate about Gerard Lawson’s job.
As a counselor and trauma specialist, he’s volunteered in the past to help survivors of catastrophes, and he’s often been among the first to help trauma victims through the shock and numbing effects of experiencing violence and loss of life.
He was on the road to Virginia Beach, Virginia, this week, volunteering once again as its communities began to hold their first funerals and memorial services, offering his expertise to the survivors of the nation’s most recent mass shooting.
He says he still goes back and forth about whether it’s a good thing that he’s the kind of person who rushes into the midst of those experiencing such sudden loss. He drove to New York during 9/11 to help the Red Cross provide counseling for families amid their shattering grief. He was on campus when a mass shooter killed 32 and wounded 17 during the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007. After making sure his students and colleagues were safe, he immediately went to work, he says, setting out into the chaos to organize the university’s trauma teams.
These have affected his life and emotions as well. But sometimes, he and other trauma specialists note, it is precisely during such experiences that some people can find not only a way to heal, but also indeed discover the strange and paradoxical possibility that such trauma can become the soil of long-term personal growth, and a richer experience of the human bonds that lie at our core.
“When you have been through any event that causes you to reckon with your mortality, and you reassess what’s most important in your life, it can open up the possibility that I may want to engage in my life in a deeper, more meaningful way,” says Dr. Lawson, whose day job is training other counselors as a professor in the School of Education at Virginia Tech.
“I don’t want to seem like a Pollyanna and talk about that in the midst of the crises people are going through,” he continues. “But in the back of my mind, I do want to think about how do I position this person so that we establish a solid foundation today for them to build on, so that they have not only a great chance for recovery, but a really good chance to actually experience some of this kind of growth as well?”
With a series of mass shootings in the United States over the past few years, and after decades of armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, health professionals say there has been a very important focus on those suffering from the physical and mental darts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
And as the acronym PTSD has become a part of the American cultural lexicon, such attention has served to help those who are diagnosed with it, experts say. More people are aware, and more people are seeking help for its isolating symptoms, including feelings of being misunderstood or pushed to the margins and forgotten.
Yet another symptom of PTSD is the tendency for survivors to begin to “overgeneralize” about the risks of living in the world. Sometimes trauma victims can begin to inflate and distort its dangers, often to an extent that becomes debilitating.
Yet, in fact, most human beings are actually remarkably resilient in the face of trauma, says Dr. Lawson, also the past president of the American Counseling Association. Some 70% to 80% of American adults experience the kind of trauma that could trigger PTSD, he and other experts say. But only 9% to 12% experience the persistent, longer-lasting symptoms.
“One of the things that is a core belief of psychological first aid, and the model that most of us use in disaster mental health, is that this gap shows us that people are pretty resilient,” he says.
“And I believe that you have in you the skills that you need, the abilities that you need, the strength that you need to be able to overcome this trauma – let me help you access that.”
Almost as an inverse counterpoint to PTSD, many mental health professionals have made note of what they call the possibilities of “post-traumatic growth.” And with a growing body of concrete, evidence-based techniques that can effectively treat the aftereffects of trauma, many have also become more optimistic about the short- and long-term prognosis of those whose lives have been shattered by violence and sudden loss.
“Developmentally, I think there are now ways to handle situations like these,” says Samuel Gladding, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “And it starts with recognizing the depth of people’s shock and disbelief. Individuals, those directly as well as indirectly involved, need to mourn, and they especially need to participate in shared, community-based events.”
“Many times it’s very helpful to participate in rituals, whether it’s singing or the laying of flowers or participating in religious services, or any kind of spiritual experience,” continues Dr. Gladding, who has also volunteered with the Red Cross to offer counseling to survivors.
“But then they need to talk,” he adds. “And that’s a slower process than we would want it to be, but that’s just developmentally the way it is.”
More and more, many survivors are doing just that. Out from the solemn litanies of dates and names of places that now mark the nation’s experiences of domestic massacre, both survivors and mental health professionals have begun to express the strange paradoxes of life after trauma.
Mike Cronk had a chance to run as volley after volley rained down where he crouched with his friend, Rob McIntosh, in what became known as the “killing zone” at the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre on the Las Vegas strip, where a single gunman shot and killed 58 and wounded 422 people on Oct. 1, 2017.
Instead of running, he stayed, pulling his buddy, who was seriously wounded, to safety. He then held a young stranger in his arms, a man whose name he later learned was Quinton Robbins, staying with him as his life slipped away.
A recently retired school teacher from Tok, Alaska, Mr. Cronk took three months to sort things out. He readied to go see the kids at the school. But he couldn’t. Sometimes he is in his truck driving, and the tears just start flowing.
“It just chokes you up, because so many people died and so many people are still hurting,” he says. “But I also don’t let it eat at me. I’m just thankful that I’m here to live my life, with purpose.”
“Before this, I was pretty quiet and shy, but now I get out there and I want people to know, no, you don’t have to let this change your life for the negative. You can use this as a power, a source, to get by and make an impact with other people.”
San Diego-based trauma counselor Shiva Ghaed, who also survived the Las Vegas shooting, has noticed this as well.
“There is a bit of controversy about the idea of post-traumatic growth, but somehow when we survive, many people actually find that they have gained clarity and have a purpose,” she says. “I wanted people to know that there is a great chance that you not only bounce back to baseline, which is what we call resilience, but that you can grow beyond it.”
Dr. Ghaed, a country music fan and a clinical psychologist for the U.S. military, immediately started a survivor group at a country music bar in San Diego, which drew dozens of survivors every Monday night for over a year.
She recalls how the connections people made had a transformative effect on those who gathered together, including a man who survived the Las Vegas shooting and who was bristling with rage about what had happened.
“By fostering forgiveness and talking about how these people had died in his arms in that open field, [his transformation] was amazing,” Dr. Ghaed says. “I think he found a greater sense of purpose and meaning in his life. It’s the way we honor the people we have lost – by truly living.”
There have been a proliferation of such online and real-time survivor groups, many patterned on The Rebels Project, a Facebook page started by survivors of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999. On this date every year, students hold a day of service at the school, and the The Rebels Project now has more than 1,100 mass shooting victims and survivors as members.
“Can you think of a better [response] to any mass shooter out there?” says Paula Reed, a Columbine survivor who teaches English. “You wanted to destroy us, and you made us into incredible forces for good in the world, that we might not have been if you hadn’t done that.”
“But it’s also what those kids would’ve wanted us to do,” continues Ms. Reed. The people she lost that day, Rachel Scott and Dan Rohrbaugh, “would not want me to curl into a ball and stop functioning. They would have wanted me to make their deaths mean something. They were too valuable to just let it be worthless.”
This year, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018, the rural community between Houston and Galveston, Texas, took a similar approach. It resisted media coverage. Only one parent had stood up to demand changes to gun laws. Instead, it commemorated the loss of eight students and two teachers that day with a day of service, including a communitywide pay-it-forward project.
Students participated in at least half a dozen community projects, and Sante Fe officials funded a “resiliency center,” open to anyone who needs help or just wants to talk.
“You’re doing your little part to help the community heal,” says Joe Giusti, a county commissioner and veteran deputy constable who lives in Santa Fe. “Even if you had no kids in the school or no friends harmed, people are doing their part. And sometimes it seems like a small thing, but people appreciate it, and it goes a really long way with people.”
“We are not built to see what we see sometimes,” Mr. Giusti adds. “But given the shooting drills in pretty darn near every school, kids have a mindset where they look at themselves in life as a protector, as a person who needs to step up and help. And you’re seeing more of that throughout the country: people jumping in, trying to help, refusing to be a victim.”
“The response from the community as a whole did restore your faith and the direction we are headed,” he says. “After a year, we’re still together, and it seems the bonds are even stronger.”
Kristina Anderson was sitting in her French class at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when the gunman walked into her classroom and began to methodically shoot her teacher and fellow students. She fell to the floor and braced herself, burying her head in her arms, before feeling a bullet tear through her back. The gunman left, but then returned to kill those who survived. He shot her two more times.
Over a decade later, she’s still recounting those terrifying moments as she runs her nonprofit, The Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools, which partners with law enforcement agencies and first responders to help schools develop the most effective ways to survive an active shooter situation, and, like other groups, is helping to forge support networks for survivors.
“But I would say that, of all the different groups and communities that have helped me, first and foremost, I would go back to trained therapists who have been able to help me understand the ways that this shooting has impacted my life,” Ms. Anderson says.
“A lot of our general friends and family members are not always best suited to have those conversations, because they’re too emotionally attached to you and to your well-being,” she says. “So they may not want to talk about it, because they feel like they are going to make you unsettled or scared.”
She bristles sometimes when her story is characterized as a “triumph over tragedy,” which to her seems glib and clichéd. She still suffers from involuntary physical and emotional triggers that can disrupt her daily life.
But her recovery has included what health professionals call “cognitive process therapy,” which has especially helped her get through the kind of persistent emotional fear that danger is lurking everywhere – an “overgeneralization” reaction that those with PTSD often suffer.
And she remembers one session with her therapist vividly – it was like a light went on. Often, when her parents call her at a time she doesn’t quite expect, her heart begins to palpitate and she’ll feel short of breath. “My thought is, someone must have died in my family.”
But she’s worked through these thoughts in her therapy sessions, even 10 years after her ordeal. “My therapist would ask me questions. ‘Has anything happened to your family since the shooting?’ And I remember thinking, no. ‘OK. Had anything happened prior to this shooting?’ No, nothing of that caliber. ‘So is your view of the world, is this reaction that you’re having, is this accurate?’ I’m like, no.”
It can be a long process and can sometimes require lifelong care, as survivors need to talk through such involuntary physical and emotional reactions.
“When you feel powerless, we’re going to work really hard to reinforce the fact that you get to make choices, you get to make decisions, you’re in charge,” says Dr. Lawson. “To the greatest extent possible, you are in charge of what’s going to happen next here. And that’s a piece that sort of sets the groundwork for the work that we’re going to do moving forward.”
Ms. Anderson worries that concepts like “post-traumatic growth” can stigmatize those who still struggle with PTSD.
“We shouldn’t hold people to the standard that one day, or one moment, we’re going to reach this epiphany,” she says. “That we will somehow put behind the trauma and the memory and the smells of that day.”
Dates and anniversaries are always particularly hard for her. And after every mass shooting, like last week’s in Virginia Beach, she knows she is going to have to be vigilant, slowing down to focus on her thoughts.
“The hardest thing about being a survivor is that people assume that you wake up one day and everything’s OK,” Ms. Anderson says. “My recovery, I understand, is going to be a work-in-progress. I don’t always know what the issues will be, but the best we can do is allow ourselves the time to reflect on it, to go back into counseling, or to reach out to someone that you know, that you trust, who won’t make you feel like you should have moved past it.”
The terror attack at an office party in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2, 2015, really put her into a tailspin – the close proximity of the shooters to their victims made her own ordeal come flooding back.
Alone in her basement apartment that night, she sobbed for hours, as distraught as she had been since the first year after those moments in a Virginia Tech classroom.
But she did feel her own ability to make decisions, and she stepped out into the chilly evening and just walked, her mind racing.
The next morning, when she climbed out of bed, a thought that had been welling within her was still on her mind. She went to the whiteboard on her fridge, and wrote it down: “You wake up and you decide the world is good.”