5 Things We Can Do in the Wake of Tragedy: Responding to the Newtown Shooting



In rearing my kids I always told them that ‘hate’ is a strong word. Don’t use it lightly, I’d say. Don’t say, “I hate this tuna casserole!” Instead say, “Gee Mom, I strongly dislike this tuna casserole. Could I have a hot dog?” Save ‘hate’ for when ‘hate’ is the only word that can describe how you feel, when it counts.

I hate so much of what has happened recently.

I hate the senseless loss of the innocents. I hate the loss of good people who cared for the innocents.

From there it gets a little mirky.

I hate that I have to separate myself from this tragedy in order to survive it. This is happening to them, not to me. I am safe, my children are safe.

In graduate school I learned about cognitive dissonance: the struggle of the brain to reconcile what we know to be true with what we want to be true. I want to believe that what happened in Newtown would never happen in my town. That desire belies what I know too well, that it can happen anywhere. That we are all vulnerable. I have to fall on the fact that the chances of violence really happening to my loved ones are microscopic, just as the chances of a plane falling on my house are microscopic. But a plane really did fall on a house not far from where I live. So where does that leave me?

I hate that yet again debate for gun control vs second amendment rights saturate the op-ed pages of the newspapers. The answer to stop mass shootings is tougher gun laws, the answer is to give teachers guns. Whatever side of this debate you are on can you all just hold off a minute to let us catch our breath? Jesus! These are important issues so why the hell do they only present in the immediate wake of blood spilt?

I hate that we have more examples of talking heads with a microphone saying stupid, hurtful things (see Mike Huckabee). Here is a good example of how some people try to reconcile cognitive dissonance. They use magical thinking. It is irresponsible and disgusting because it blames the victims.

I hate that the entire population of people suffering from mental illness, innocent people, are subject to profiling. Efforts to come up with a way to predict that a certain person will act in violence do not work:

“Because a tragedy of this proportion can’t fit into any rational container. It is a purely irrational, criminal act that has little explanation. It happens so rarely that, like most random terrorist acts, it cannot be prevented. The signs we would look for from this single individual would do little to help us with the next person — who will act in a way quite unique to their own upbringing, history, and psyche.” Dr. John Grohol, Making Sense of Tragedy

I hate that the media can’t just report and step away to give us time to process. Instead we are bombarded by the grief of strangers that we know too well, by the ‘experts’ telling us why and how, by children’s first hand description of horror. The line that divides the responsibility to inform and the drive to sell is messy. If they won’t draw it for us we need to draw it for ourselves.

I hate that I could cut and paste this list and apply it to so many mass shootings and tragedies we’ve endured in the past.

When we feel so powerless what can we do?

1. Use our heads. Instead of being afraid of people with mental illness and thus perpetuating harmful meaningless stigma, learn more about the millions of individuals who live with mental illness. People with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victim of violence than the other way around.

2. Share in our humanity. Highly sensitive people (and who among us is not?) feel empathy profoundly. Just because it has not happened to us directly does not mean we do not grieve. Even from a great distance we are sensitive to the depth of loss. Cry, be sad. Allow grief to happen. Then wash your face, breathe deeply and allow life to happen, too.

3. Turn off the radio, television, step away from the computer and put down the newspaper. Allow yourself the space to adjust to the news at your pace, not theirs.

4. Do good. I do not mean make a donation or give blood. Although all that is good, there is more we can do. I mean what my friend Chris said in his comment from yesterday, let us out-grace one another. Let us look for opportunities to act with kindness. Pay forward the kindness received from others. Let us breathe in the healing love and goodness in the Universe and breathe out the poison.

5. Stop the hate. Now that I’ve breathed out the hate I am hopeful I can let it go.

5 comments


  • Thanks for your insight, Dr. A.

    I’ve had to follow your #3 rule this time. Partially by default and partially by necessity. It’s not that I want to downplay what happened, but hearing about it incessantly helps no one.

    I like the idea of out-gracing each other. It’s a good challenge.

    2012/12/15
    • Sheryl, I’m glad you are taking care if yourself. Ever since 9/11 we’ve learned that over-exposure to the news of traumatic events only serves to re-traumatize. Giving ourselves permission to turn it off without the fear that we are being selfish or uncaring is important. So I agree hearing about it all the time helps no one.

      2012/12/15
  • Laura

    Thank you Dr. A.

    2012/12/15
    • You are welcome, Laura. I hope the article was helpful.

      2012/12/15
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    2013/04/16

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