Mass Shootings: Surviving and Coping When the Next One Happens

There have been over 1,000 mass shootings since the 2012 Presidential Election. Currently, there are 300 million guns in America, concentrated in the hands of 1/3 of the total population. The number of per capita murders in the United States, when compared to the United Kingdom, is nearly 30 times higher.[1] Moreover, Americans are more likely to die in a mass shooting if they are at work or school and there is a “contagious” aspect about these events. One killing or shooting increases the chances that another shooting will occur within about two weeks.[2] And those are just the stats for mass shootings. What about the shootings we don’t hear about? It was found that in 2013 an average of 92 people died on a daily basis in the U.S. from firearm-related injuries.[3]

Shocking, terrifying, troubling statistics.

Now, I’m not here to debate the Second Amendment, nor am I here to talk about politics or the NRA. Rather, I am here today to discuss the pervasive topic of grief and its relation to surviving an incident, or knowing someone who did. There are myriad emotions that can occur when doing something as simple as hearing the news that a mass shooting has happened—again.

The Loneliest Club

Americans bound together because of bullets. Called Everytown for Gun Safety, this group comprises of individuals who have had their families and lives torn apart because of gun violence. They are the survivors. And while Everytown for Gun Safety has said that they are “the other gun lobby” and is devoted to activism work, the group also bands together to help deal with their grief, together. Grief comes in many forms—but this particular brand of grief, coupled with PTSD, flashbacks, depression, and wrenching sorrow is unique.

Let’s consider the story of Colin Goddard. He is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. He was on a conference call at work when he heard that the nation’s attention had turned to a small town in Oregon, where a man had just open fired in a classroom, killing nine people and injuring nine others. Not only was he thrown back into his own horror-filled situation, he has been faced with actively learning how to cope with the continual news that another atrocity has occurred, as well as the 24/7 media coverage.

Or consider the insight of Caren Teves, whose son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. “The moment it happens, after the first Tweet or the first Facebook message goes out, it’s like a wave that comes and keeps crushing you, and you have to force yourself to stand back up. It happens so often that if we weren’t getting used to carrying this weight, we would never get off the floor.”

That thought alone is profound to me. I regularly speak about the topic of grief and how to manage and prepare for certain dates—a loved one’s birthday, during the holidays, on the anniversary of the person’s passing. So the idea of combining those milestones, with normal feelings and emotions associated with grief, and then increasing everything by 1000 percent every time the news announces another tragedy (which if we are counting—Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, was only five days after the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado) is completely overwhelming. These people can’t prepare for dealing with a new wave of grief—because they literally have no way to know when it’s going to happen next.

Victims and Co-Victims

The number of deaths and injuries related to direct gun violence is only one part of this equation. When considering the full scope of this situation and the sheer number of people who are touched by shootings, it’s necessary to realize there are an even greater number of secondary victims. These people also happen to fall in the “survivor” category and are sometimes referred to as Co-Victims. They are the parents, children, siblings, spouses, and others who have lost a loved one or a friend to gun violence. In the aftermath of a shooting, it is the co-victim who has to deal with law enforcement, the medical examiner, the press, and the court system, among others. They may have to clean up the crime scene or stay close by while this is managed, they may have to pay the victim’s medical bills, arrange for a funeral…the list goes on. And while some of this sounds typical when dealing with the death of a loved one—there is another angle present here.

The Co-Victim has had their sense of security shattered. They aren’t dealing with someone who passed from cancer, and it’s a different type of shock than what is experienced when there is a car accident, for instance. They had their loved one taken from them in a very public way—possibly in a school, a movie theater, a mall, or in a church. Places where we believe we are supposed to feel safe. Combined with this pervasive epidemic that is becoming a part of the American way of life, it’s little wonder that grief management takes on a completely different angle when helping this group of people.

Dealing with Trauma

Unfortunately, the CDC has not received federal funding to conduct research on gun violence since 1996. Yes, you heard that right. At the same time, it’s a fact that survivors of gun violence are a group unlike other grievers. Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, said gun violence survivors with PTSD may see symptoms recur or intensify, including nightmares and flashbacks, fear, anger, loss of capacity for positive emotion, and avoidance of others when news coverage of new situations occur.

And while some of those feelings and symptoms are also associated with “normal” grief, there is a divide here. A gun violence survivor is a member of a club that no one wants to be a part of and it’s hard for non-victims to truly understand what they are going through.

With that being said, here is some advice for gun violence survivors who are dealing with the aftermath:

  • Seek out support groups designed specifically for gun violence victims. There is the opportunity to feel secure and comforted while in the midst of people who you have something (albeit tragic) in common with.
  • Form bonds with other survivors and keep in touch on Facebook, via text, email, and phone. Seek these individuals out when facing debilitating sadness, experiencing slipping faith, or when flashbacks return and insomnia sets in.
  • Realize that it’s a situation that is impossible to get over, but that it will get better. Find a way to balance grief with hope: find a cause, create a website, keep your family close, make your family bigger,
  • Understand your “breaking point” regarding media coverage of new events. If watching TV coverage of a shooting triggers anxiety, but you have obsessive thoughts about wanting to continue to watch, connect with a friend who will check in with you during these times and encourage you to turn it off, tune it out, or talk you through it. It’s okay to check out in these situations—for your own emotional well-being and mental health.

Finally, in dealing with any traumatic situation, there is never shame in getting professional help. Visit www.BLTStrategies.com for more information.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34424385

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/27/health/u-s-most-mass-shootings/

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/oregon-college-shooting/outside-oregon-typical-day-u-s-gun-violence-n437791

Mary Ellen Wasielewski