Updated: Jun 14, 2022
This is an excerpt from my own personal story three years ago. I was feeling a little raw after being present and experiencing the trauma of a school shooting at my son's school. Now, as we face the same story in the news again, I hope that the words that I expressed then will still be of help to others today in the face of tragedy.
As I sit here and watch my six-year-old son work out his emotions on the climbing wall in front of me, I am struck with joy and gratitude.
In less than a year I have come face to face twice with the reality that I am not promised beyond the moment I have with my kids; or in general. In June our family was in a car accident where we all had a moment we weren’t certain our youngest son was still alive. Yesterday, I sat in my car in front of my son’s school and watched it become surrounded by police, heard loud bangs, listened to the loud speaker repeat “Lock, Lights, Out of Sight” for what felt like hours as police and SWAT broke into the side doors and ran around toting assault rifles. I was only a short distance from the window of my son’s classroom, but was powerless to do anything to determine if he was okay or to keep him safe.
As a mental health professional I know all the “right” things to do in a crisis situation:
I chose to breathe, to settle my nervous system as much as I could.
I chose to focus on the here and now, and not the endless roads of "what if"s I could go down in my head.
I chose to believe in both instances that everything was going to be okay, waiting to be proven wrong, not the other way around.
I chose to do the things that were within my power to do: hold my child, help other parents, pray.
Still, in both cases, I was scared. Terrified.
Since my boys arrived on the scene I have been constantly reminded that I do not have the power to keep them safe, happy or healthy all the time. I can live in a safe area, I can drive a safe car, I can try to make sure my kids don’t run in parking lots, or jump from tall buildings, or that they always wear helmets when they bike. The bottom line though: I don’t know how many breaths I have yet to breathe, or how many my kids have. I have to let go of the illusion that I can somehow control them or the world around them into a place of perfect safety or absence of all fear.
So, today, I sit here grateful that for this moment I have the opportunity to be grateful for so much!
In both of these traumas recounted here, it took time for me to feel safe enough to process the events, and even more time to work towards healing. The same way a physical injury takes time to heal, so does an injury to our psyche, our nervous system, our emotion and our safety. Often, the greater our experience of injury, the more time we need to allow for healing.
Some great steps to help you heal from trauma are:
Pay attention to your signals. Emotions and physical experiences signal us that something is happening. When you feel new emotion or tension, ask yourself "what's causing me to feel this way?"
Take time to settle down. Taking breaks throughout the day to ground and calm your physical body will help you feel safe and settled enough for your body and brain to do the work of processing your traumatic experiences.
Write it down. When you are aren't able to work it out in your head, try getting it out of your head. Write things out on paper, maybe even reread them to yourself to help your brain engage in a different way.
Talk to someone. Call a safe person who will be able to give you space to process and support you.
Ask for help. If you find that you are re-living or getting overwhelmed by your memories or responses to a traumatic event, reach out to a professional mental health provider who can help you process and heal in healthy ways.