Last week, a tragedy occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The tragedy is unspeakable. The knowledge that evil exists in an extreme form is very difficult to swallow. What causes someone to commit an act of violence toward innocent children? There is no way to explain the senseless violence. There are no good answers or reasons for what happened.
The media has been releasing heartbreaking images of the deceased, and even though we are miles from Newtown, CT, we are left struggling to process the many feelings that may arise. We don’t want to picture a world where deliberate murder could occur in a school for children. For most of us, tragedies do not fit with the way we think about our world. Our minds may seek an explanation that we could tolerate. Our instinctual response is often to find a way to understand what happened. When tragedies, such as the massacre of children, are hard to explain, we no longer know how to view the world. The stark contrast between our beliefs about the world and our harsh reality may cause us to feel psychological distress.
Finding the Strength Within
Although it may not feel like this right now, people are often able to handle the most stressful of life situations over time. We each have an ability to tap into our inner stores of resilience when tragedy occurs. Each person may have a different way of dealing with stress, and an individual road to finding strength. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as a choice that we can make- a choice that involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned. The APA identifies some things that people can do to build their resilience:
- Make connections with people who can be supportive. Reach out to friends and family and talk about what you are experiencing. Consider whether there is anything that you can do to help the victims and the community affected by the shooting.
- Keep things in perspective: remember that while evil is a part of our world, so is kindness. Think about all the heroes of Sandy Hook who demonstrated extraordinary love and care while afraid for their own lives- the heroes are proof that there is light and warmth and goodness in our world.
- Pray: Yes, the APA actually recommends prayer. Studies have shown that people with a spiritual/religious connection tend to have higher levels of resilience. If you can, draw upon the belief that we are never alone.
For Children: Many of our local schools and community organizations have released excellent tips on how to speak to children about the tragedy. We encourage you to refer to those tips for advice about how to talk with children in a clear, calm, and honest manner.
Reaching our Ability to Cope
There are many things we do to cope with events that are overwhelming. We may look for ways to shield ourselves from the pain and discomfort so that we can live our lives. One common reaction is avoidance. This can take many forms. We may avoid talking about the event, reading about the event, thinking about the event, or watching coverage of the event. Alternatively, we may focus only on the stories of courage that occurred in Sandy Hook as a way to distract ourselves from feeling the pain. We may get caught up in discussions about the political and socioeconomic aspects of the tragedy in an effort to block out the gruesome images. These avoidance strategies protect us from facing a reality that may be too much for us to handle. They are natural and normal reactions to painful emotions. With time, it is healthiest to move toward developing an ability to deal with the real situation, even if it is stressful. When we do face our real feelings about the murders, we may feel worse before we feel better. That is a sign that we are no longer avoiding the reality and that we are beginning to heal.
Seeing The Greater Picture
One way to find our inner strength is to consider the tragedy in the context of a greater picture. We can choose to think about adversity in an accurate manner that includes both the good and the evil. When we reach a balanced view, we are effectively increasing our resilience and decreasing our psychological distress.
The fact is, there was one gunman who committed unforgivable atrocities. There were many more people who committed acts of self-sacrifice and kindness. There were teachers who put their own fear aside while they hid, comforted, and spoke lovingly to their students. There were staff members who ran straight into gunfire in order to save others. And there were teachers whose first instincts were to sacrifice their lives and use their bodies to shield their young students. In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was an outpouring of support from the community and the nation. Neighbors opened their doors to children suffering from shock. Children sent cards and letters. Adults sent generous donations to memorial funds. When one NY Giants player heard that a young victim had idolized him, he visited the victim’s family and went out of his way to provide some comfort. A set of twins who attend Solomon Schechter Day School reached out to a child whose twin was murdered and offered their empathy, reminding her that she is never alone.
These are just some of the people who showed pure goodness at a time of crisis. While we cannot hide from what happened, we can remember that evil was in the minority at Sandy Hook.