A post written in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings triggered a significant response from my Facebook friends, including multiple shares, so I thought I would share the post on my blog. A link to the public post and comments can be found here, but the following is the text from the main post:
Like most, I am reeling from two days of carnage in El Paso and Dayton. What many of my FB friends might not know is that I am from Dayton. I know the part of the Oregon District where the shootings took place very well. I grew up the Dayton suburb of Bellbrook, raised my kids there, and was embedded in the community until moving to [Florida State University] 2011. Now, it turns out, the shooter may have lived one street away from the house where I lived for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, my thoughts and prayers go out to all my friends, relatives, and neighbors. (As far as I know, none of my family, friends, or neighbors were directly in harm’s way.)
These events are sad, tragic, and dispiriting to say the least. Everyone will be going through a difficult time processing the human tragedy, the apparent senselessness of the violence, and their implications. Finding ways to move beyond these tragedies is difficult, but essential work, and we all can play a part in the healing.
Unfortunately, I have found myself grappling with these types of traumas much more than I ever anticipated since I moved for Florida State and Tallahassee in 2011. Since coming to FSU, I have learned an astounding amount about emotional trauma from sexual assault survivors, but I’ve also worked (as a teacher, not a professional counselor) with my students to cope with the FSU Strozier library shootings in 2014, the Parkland high school mass shooting in 2018, the Hot Yoga studio shootings in 2019 as well as the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricanes Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), and most recently Michael (2018), which wiped out much of the Panhandle. Sadly, this seems to go with the territory when teaching at a large, urban university in the third most populous state in the nation that is also surrounded by large bodies of water. In each of these cases, I worked with students one-on-one and in group discussion.
I am not a trained professional, but I have learned we all have a role to play in helping others overcome these tragedies. This role includes helping those who may not have been directly effected but have important emotional ties to the people and events.
Here are a few initial thoughts based on what I have learned working with my students:
- By all means, talk about it. Verbally articulating your fears, anxieties, and emotions is vital to processing these events. It also creates a firm foundation for the next step in healing. Create safe spaces for family, friends, and others to help them process their feelings without judgement. This is critical to moving forward. I have found our discussions in the classroom have helped students and families move forward in a constructive and positive ways. The feelings are real. They need to be named, discussed, and contextualized. Talking in a nonjudgmental space helps… a lot.
- Don’t be afraid to seek professional help, even if you weren’t directly affected by the event. We are human. We are naturally empathetic. Part of they way many people process these events is by identifying direct connections to the tragedy to provide context for the hurt and pain. Just because I am 900 miles away from Dayton, doesn’t mean I am not struggling with how to connect to friends and family or experiencing other forms of anxiety, including guilt, fear, and anger. Professional counselors, therapists can help you process through this.
- Remember the human toll from these events is vast. I know my community of Bellbrook is reeling from the knowledge that someone in their own community committed this horrendous evil. Many will be saying “why didn’t we know?” “Should we have known?” “What could we have done?” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will feel the tangible effects of these events and will be grappling with the aftermath.
- The physical toll on the survivors is just one element of their personal tragedy. The emotional and psychological scars will be long lasting, and for many permanent. This event is an indelible part of their identity from this point forward. Be patient. Be supportive. Remember, everyone is on their own journey. As friends and relatives, our task is to help them get onto that healing path.
I have known many survivors of tragedy that have emerged as powerful, amazing human beings. These events, however, require us all to do our part in small and big ways to ensure a healing process and journey can begin.
One final thought (for those on spiritual journeys): I was in Orlando last night, but had the crazy idea to try to make it back to Element3 Church for the 11 am service. (I usually attend the 9 am.) These plans were made weeks ago. Today, our lead pastor, Lori Green, opened the service with a heartfelt and impassioned plea to remember why we were attending service today — because our Christian faith puts pre-eminent emphasis on love, community, and connection. This is where God’s love manifests itself in our daily lives. I have to admit that as she was talking about Dayton, I began to process El Paso, Parkland, Hot Yoga, Strozier library, Hurricane Michael — now hundreds of students where I have been privileged to lead discussions about coping with tragedy and trauma. I became overwhelmed.
I don’t know if anyone noticed my tears. But I realized I was in a community of people that understood the path forward is through love and compassion, not anger and violence. This is where the healing begins, continues, and leads to long-term peace. We cannot do it alone. Nor should we.
I am not sure why I was compelled to make it back to E3 today, and Pastor Lori certainly didn’t know what I was going through as I was listening, but I am glad I did. I am grateful this is my home Church and can testify to the power of its message.
For those interested in knowing more about my work on emotional trauma, particularly as it relates to sexual assault, here are a few links:
- My book Unsafe On Any Campus: College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It. Chapters 2 and 3 are particularly relevant to understanding emotional trauma.
- My website page on self-defense.