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Like most of you, I have shed many tears over the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  I grapple with the overwhelming senselessness of it all.  I can barely process the unspeakable pain that will haunt the families who have lost their cherished, innocent children, mothers, daughters or siblings.  I have only an intellectual understanding of the trauma that will haunt the survivors who witnessed the massacre, as well as the lasting impact it will have on their entire community.  As images of funerals, tiny coffins, and grieving loved ones infiltrate the media, the tears resurface and I continually shake my head in disbelief.

As a clinician who has an expertise in trauma, many colleagues have asked me for guidance in handling this horrific event with clients.  When tragedy strikes, I think we are hardwired to immediately ask “why?”  It is untenable to not have an answer.  Not having answers increases our sense of helplessness about a situation that has already left us feeling vulnerable and disempowered.   In this case, asking “why” could lead to important conversations about mental illness, lax gun control laws and the frightening accessibility of assault weapons and bullets, the impact of dysfunctional family dynamics, missed red flags that were indicative of sociopathy or untreated trauma, etc.  But in the end, there is an inherent senselessness to these tragedies, and no answer ever really satisfies.

Instead, I’d like to offer some things to keep in mind when processing these kinds of events, particularly with our clients.  Many people who have prior histories of trauma interpret these tragedies as “proof” or “evidence” that the world has been and always will be an unsafe place.  This can create a downward spiral of cognitive and emotional distortions, and I think it’s important to help clients maintain a sense of balance or perspective while still giving them the opportunity to express their fear, grief or anger.  When we overgeneralize and think “everyone is evil” or “every environment is unsafe,” our lives and relationships get marginalized and we become re-victimized.

It is easy to focus on what we can’t control, and to obsess about how scary that is as we go through our daily lives.  The counter-balance is to remind our clients of what they can control and to help them stay pro-active in those arenas.  I believe the best responses to acts of evil are acts of kindness.  Encourage your clients to do something that honors the memory of those children and keeps alive the notion that there is still goodness in the world.  Whether it’s signing a petition to change gun control laws, advocating for the increased availability of mental health resources, donating money or services to help the stricken families and community of New Town, or reading to children who are hospitalized during the holidays, “doing something” is what helps us attach meaning to these kind of senseless crimes.  It is also a way to help clients recognize the difference between their past experiences- when they were truly powerless- and the present- when they can respond and make a difference.

As we compassionately help our clients navigate their emotions, remember to help them keep alive feelings of gratitude.  Tragedies are opportunities for us to focus on what we do still have, and to reconnect with the people and relationships that are often taken for granted.  In the earliest stages of tragedy, it seems impossible to focus on gratitude.  Our anger and grief can trump everything else.  But when we are ready, there is great healing to be found by re-embracing and acknowledging all that we have to be grateful for in our lives.

Lastly, the issues of faith and spirituality can be sorely tested during these times.  Clients can feel legitimately “betrayed” by a higher power that “allowed” something so awful to happen.  My belief is that God is not in these heinous acts.  He gives us free will and the choice to harm others is a choice that man makes.  God is in the aftermath: the grace, resiliency and inner strength we eventually discover in ourselves. He is in the newfound meaning and possibility of healing and growth that can follow in the footsteps of trauma.  He is in the “coming together” through beautiful acts of kindness and support that this community and other communities around the country and even the world will discover, in time.  Prayer and faith can be great sources of comfort.  So even when we are angry with God, we are still connected to God.   And that relationship can sustain us even in our darkest times.

Below are links to documents from  A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools: Sixth Edition and Comprehensive Acute Traumatic Stress Management, both publications of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. They include useful information for assisting professionals in addressing the emergent psychological needs of those impacted by this tragic event.

Practical Suggestions for Assisting Children in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Teacher Guidelines for Crisis Response

Parent Guidelines for Crisis Response

How Do People Respond During Traumatic Exposure?

Helpful Information During and After a Traumatic Event

21 thoughts on "When Sandy Hook Hits Home or Elsewhere"

  1. Leslie BlumLCSW,BCD says:

    When there were no words, you found ones of comfort and hope-
    Both personally and professionally and, most
    Compassionately, from the heart. Thank you for reaching out
    So bravely and helping to keep us grounded in these
    Outrageous times.
    Always a fan, and with great respect,

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you, Leslie, for such a heartfelt response. You have always been a great supporter of the Institute and my work and I want you to know how much I appreciate and respect your feedback.

  2. Amy Jackson says:

    Thank you Lisa for this information. It will help me address this recent event during my Dual Diagnosis Group today because many of my clients have been expressing feelings about what happened and now I can give them some additional resources to help them get through their feelings.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Amy. I am glad I can give you something concrete to use. I know how dedicated you are to your group!

  3. Barry Rosenberg says:

    Lisa- well said! I often wonder at the captivity of our National and state legisltors to the so called gun lobby, the NRA. It is more to the point to focus on and expose the gun and ammunition manufacturers who make and distribute the weapons. They, of course, lobby (and pay) the legislators, espeically at election time, to protect their financial interests and defeat gun control legislation. The NRA is basically their public persona, since once exposed as money making interests, the weapon makers lose their hiding place and necessarily have to bear their share of the responsibility for these horrific crimes and the tragic deaths of children and others. Shouldn’t we start naming these companies, “calling them out by NAME”…and holding them responsible. We can ask the media to do the same! This approach might also be valuable to folks who are touched by the tragedy and those who experience trauma. “Naming the thing can be curative”.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Barry, I really appreciate your take on this! It’s such an emotionally charged issue, but the bottom line is too many innocent lives are lost to guns, and I completely agree that naming the “elephant in the living room” is always an important and inherently healing step.

  4. Beck says:

    Thank you so much for this valuable information to share with families! So many of the families that I work with have a loved one with an eating disorder who may be very vulnerable. They may not have access to a mental health professional with the background and expertise in this specific area. I am very grateful to have this concrete advice to share with them.

    I would like your permission to share this information in my blog post for later this week.

    With Gratitude,
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, LLC

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Becky. By all means, pleas feel free to use whatever resources can be helpful . I’ve always believed that is the best way to “pay it forward.”

  5. Ricardo Snyder, LMFT says:

    Ms Ferenz, thank you for your thoughtful and passionate comments about this trajedy! I do think one thing was left out however. While we are looking at mental health, gun control laws, etc. we shouldn’t forget the impact of the extremely violent themes in today’s media, videogames, music, which are numbing us to the reality of what we are filling our minds with. We are subtley being desensitized and trained to accept this kind of behavior as everyday and normal, and kids are losing a sense of horror that should come with the senseless loss of God given human life! Lets hold everyone accountable for their part: gunmakers, media makers, politicians, Hollywood, and of course ourselves!

    Sincerely, RAS

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Ricardo, I couldn’t agree with you more! My three sons will attest to my incredibly strong feelings about the adverse and desensitizing effects of violence in the media, as, much to their chagrin, I assertively monitored and vetoed much of what they wanted to watch growing up. I thank you for highlighting such an important component of this issue. I find it particularly frightening that not enough attention is paid to both the short-term consequences (nightmares, irritability, aggression) and long-term consequences ( loss of empathy, implicit acceptance for anti-social acts) of excessive violence in the media.

  6. Sterling Hawkins, LCSW-C, BCD says:

    Thank you Lisa for reminding us of what is often difficult to remember during a crisis which affects us nationally is that the memories of these children and adults will remain with us, and an appropriate response is that we give voice to their lives by not allowing their memories to be silenced. More importantly, that while our spiritual beliefs may be challenged at times like this, we are still connected to God in ways we can’t understand and must acknowledge that the choice to harm is a personal one for which individuals and not God bears the responsibility. Thank you for your words of comfort and encouragement.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you, Sterling, for such an eloquent and heartfelt response. Since our ability to maintain a sense of spiritual connectedness and comfort is so critical during these tragedies, I really appreciate your highlighting that core value and need in your response.

  7. Mike Schappell says:

    I love what you said. It was filled with love, understanding, healing, and selfless grieving with those who grieve now, and forward-thinking regarding their healing, and the healing of others who had a serious wake-up call when this happened. This event has turned everyone into an angry mob desirous of rules and more rules. I feel I’d be misunderstood even though I’m a seminary-trained person who loves God and people, is a Therapist for 30 years, all because I own handguns and shoot paper targets at a range. Lisa, you have put it very gracefully-that we need to look at the multitude of preshooting dynamics, but also at the state of the shooter’s mind/heart. If that isn’t right, chaos can easily follow, and many hearts will need healing in the aftermath. Mike

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Thank you, Mike, for taking the time to write such a meaningful response. You bring so much to the table, especially as a seminary-trained therapist. Your skills are needed now more than ever, and I sincerely hope that people can reach out to experts like you so true healing can happen.

  8. Vivien Deitz says:

    Lisa you are a ‘gem’ not only to our professional community, our clients but to our selves as well. Your responses are always so timely, caring, compassionate and nurturing. Thank you for putting words to something that has no words ….

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Vivien, that is a high compliment, especially when it comes from a “gem” of a person like you! I know your incredible gifts as a clinician and healer are being called upon now more than ever and I hope many people find their way to your doorstep, for the comfort and wisdom you are able to offer.

  9. Sharon Williams says:

    Lisa —

    Thank you for such thoughtful words and helpful resources. So many of the people we are helping are among the most fragile emotionally and spiritually, and it can be so unsettling for them to experience trauma by proxy. Whatever we ourselves are feeling is probably multiplied in them. It’s so important to process these incidents with them with care, and I thank you for some wise and compassionate ways to do so.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Sharon, thank you for your wise observation regarding the impact of “trauma by proxy.” It’s a great reminder that even when clients “witness” trauma from a distance, rather than experiencing it directly, the impact can be profound and we must be careful to not minimize their need for processing and comfort.

  10. Mary Ann Murtha says:

    Would like to hear the tragedy referred to as 12/14.
    It’s the day it happened and one that should be logged into our collective consciousness so we can honor the memories of the 26 beautiful children and educators who died. Besides, 12+14= 26.
    12/14. Think it. Say it. Pass it on.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Mary Ann, I completely agree with you. Your suggestion is a powerful way for us to never forget this profound tragedy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  11. Paula Aspesi says:

    I was on a Crisis Behavioral Health team for the state of CT – mental health 1st responders who went to Sandy Hook and Newtown. The work was both devastating/amazing. I now struggle with my own healing. I knew so much about trauma and crisis- I felt very prepared. Did my own therapy for 20+ years so I felt protected so to speak. Now I struggle with the aftermath of this traumatic work. I am also an art therapist but didn’t use it during the crisis work in the surrounding schools. I never imagined myself doing the work I did at that time- I was never so emotional (when I worked) in my life. Now we are seeing the after effects of this tragedy. I will be trying to heal myself first then do more Trauma Art Therapy training which will be so valuable for our future healing. Thx

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