As tragedy follows tragedy in the news, it is apparent that school shootings are increasing in frequency. Whatever we may believe is causing them, it seems that we will see more innocents die before a solution is found.
In the meantime, how do we, as survivors, care-givers, and even the general public, deal with the tide of emotions that follows in the wake of a shooting? How can we learn to live again when a tragedy has happened in our community or country?
Fairly typical after a tragedy is feeling a sense of elation that this isn’t happening to you, or to your children. Relief that it is happening somewhere else is common. What may come next are the questions. How is it possible for such good children to die? How can a fair and just world still exist when tragedies like this occur?
For some, it may test their faith. For others, it may be a time to question our own inherent “goodness”. We might ask ourselves things like: why am I permitted to live, when my life has been less than perfect or good or correct? We wonder if there is a cosmic order to things when events like this occur and may lose trust in people around us.
Dealing With The Pain Of Survivor's Guilt
If we are more directly involved, perhaps living in the same town, have or had children at that particular school or a neighboring school, we feel more of an impact. There is often a sense of survivor’s guilt, a questioning of why we are still alive when so many have died. Or, if directly involved, we may question our actions or involvement. Questions like the below may come up:
- What if I had driven Kala to school that day? She would have been there, too.
- I should have been working that day. I might have been able to help.
- I just saw Alex yesterday at the playground, and I should have been kinder.
- How could they be gone, and I am still here?
Even in children, guilt is very real. Children and adolescents experience grief, trauma, and depression, just as an adult would. And their feelings of guilt can be just as debilitating. In children, especially, a belief that something they did may have caused their friend or sibling to die can be very pronounced.
Care-givers like law enforcement, teachers, first responders, may have an even stronger sense of guilt, and are often plagued by “what if’s” – What if I had gotten there sooner, what if it hadn’t been my day off, what if I had seen the signs earlier in that child? If we were close to any of the deceased, the feelings are much more intense, and can be debilitating. For siblings, parents, and relatives, the guilt can be overwhelming.
The Sometimes Unrelenting Effects Of Unaddressed Guilt
Guilt has strong repercussions. In her helpful guide for survivors and caregivers, Dr. Kathleen Nader says that “parts of one's own nature (e.g., self-confidence, generosity) as well as resources, circumstances, and expectations can be altered or lost.” This is a real loss of self. Guilt, if not expiated, may carry over into all aspects of our lives, keeping us distant from others, or causing us to make bad choices in friendships and relationships. We may feel unworthy of good things coming to us.
For both adults and children, it is not expected that these intense feelings will be easily swept under the rug. Great treatment exists for both guilt and trauma to help cope. As in all cognitive behavioral therapy, the therapist works to help the survivor reframe their thoughts and feelings, not to just cover up the emotion. For children, this may take the form of active play. For adults, it would involve a discussion of the thoughts they are having.
Whether you are a sibling, care-giver, or a community member, it is helpful to keep the following in mind.
How Resolving And Expressing Feelings And Emotions Can Help
For example, you can:
- Acknowledge your feelings of elation. It’s okay to be thankful for being alive.
- Talk about the person who has died. Remember their words and actions. Celebrate their lives. It may help to speak of the person instead of suppressing it. For children, especially, they need to be able to speak of friends and family.
- Reassess what is important to you. What really matters, and what brings you joy?
- Treasure the parts of your life that are meaningful.
- Recognize that the tragedy may have brought up old issues for you and seek help if needed.
Reaching Out Through Therapy And Counseling
If you are struggling with thoughts of guilt or grief, reach out to a therapist for help. Great and successful treatments exist to help you through this time.
At Nassau Guidance, our grief and trauma specialists understand the emotional impact of tragedy, and help each individual person find a path through the darkness. Please reach out if you are suffering.
Resources: (not affiliated with Nassau Guidance and Counseling):