Processing the Pain of the Parkland Tragedy
The city of Parkland is a short 18 minutes from the school where I work. Some of the students in my school have siblings who survived the shooting. Others lost friends and family members. Our community and our nation are experiencing intense emotional pain right now. Grief. Anger. Sorrow. Guilt. These emotions are running high and are very raw.
It still may be too soon for us to make sense of and deal with our emotions in productive ways; you may be feeling disoriented or detached – and those are common responses in a time like this. In order to get through each day and preserve our sanity, many people tend to avoid intense painful feelings or to push them away.
While this helps us function in the short-term, it’s important to acknowledge and deal with these feelings consciously so you can begin to move forward in a calmer and more purposeful way. If you continue to avoid these darker emotions, they’re likely to express themselves unconsciously or destructively—for example with overeating, or inappropriately lashing out at people. That behavior may provide temporary relief, but almost always creates a negative long-term result.
As a guidance counselor and coach, it’s my responsibility to listen to my students and clients tell their stories and reveal their thoughts to me in return for an honest, non-judgmental perspective. Last week, I essentially put my own feelings on hold and didn’t permit myself to fully experience what was happening so I could support everyone else. Any time my thoughts turned toward the families of the victims and what they might be going through, I unconsciously pushed them aside for fear that once I let myself empathize, I wouldn’t be able to stop imagining what it would be like if that happened to me and I’d slip into a state of high anxiety – similar to how I felt after 9/11.
Two days after this unthinkable tragedy took place, I noticed that I felt numb, cut off from my feelings and my own body. I wanted to feel sadness. I wanted to allow anger, grief, horror, and heartbreak. I recognized that I needed to grieve, too.
My co-workers’ nephew was one of the victims last week, and I decided to attend his funeral on Sunday. During the moving and meaningful service, the officiating Rabbi spoke calmly and eloquently. With nearly 1500 people in the room, you could hear a pin drop.
Then the father bravely addressed us through his sobs and quivering voice, and shared stories of his son’s short but inspiring life. He talked about his son’s interests, friends, and favorite foods. For the first time that week, I allowed myself to imagine what it would feel like to mourn the loss of my own child. I felt a lump in my throat and fluttering in my arms and chest. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I felt heaviness in my entire body, and a dull ache in my head. Even though it was uncomfortable, I felt a strange sense of relief, as though a pipe in my subconscious had become unclogged.
For those of you who may be having difficulty processing your feelings, too, here are six basic steps:
1. Close your eyes and describe the feeling in your body in detail. Pretend you’re describing it to a Martian who has never experienced it before. Where is it? Does the feeling have a color? Is it hard or soft? Fast or slow? Heavy or light? Watch and notice it.
2. Identify the emotion. Say to yourself, “This is (name of emotion). This is what (emotion) feels like.” Breathe into it. Just allow yourself to be present with it.
3. Notice any desire to resist, react, or avoid the emotion. Acknowledge any destructive ways you might want to behave (for example, eat cookies or yell and scream at someone) and tell yourself, “That won’t take this pain away. My pain is a human experience and part of my own journey.”
4. Allow the pain to be with you throughout the day as you drive to work, cook dinner, do the dishes, or talk on the phone. You can say to yourself, “This is what (emotion) feels like when I cook dinner, this is what (emotion) feels like when I’m talking on the phone about something completely different and pretending I feel normal.”
5. Keep noticing how it feels and what thoughts appear in your mind. Notice these thoughts with curiosity and compassion, without judgement. For me, I noticed thoughts like: This is so sad. He was so young. His family must miss him so much. How will his family go on without him?
6. Continue to observe your thoughts and notice the emotions they create in your body. Own your pain. Acknowledge that you hold it, so you can let it go.
Remember that there’s no deadline for processing pain. There’s no rush. Do as much or as little as you can when you can, and allow it to take as long as necessary. By staying conscious and aware, you can gain more clarity and perspective on your situation as time goes on.
The steps outlined above are for informational and educational purposes only, and are not intended to be a substitute for professional psychological, psychiatric or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition.
Please seek professional help immediately if:
- you have thoughts of harming yourself or others;
- you are gravely disabled (unable to care for yourself);
- you are abusing substances;
- you or someone else is in any danger of harm.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by this shooting, trained crisis counselors are available at the National Disaster Distress Helpline (call 800-985-5990) or by texting TalkWithUs to 66746.
If you've been personally affected by gun violence and would like to connect with other survivors, please go to everytown.org/survivors to learn more.