Supporting Victims in the Aftermath of Mass Shootings

As a shooting survivor, I have an intimate view on victim support after a mass shooting. In light of the continuing shootings that occur around the country, I wanted to let communities know how victims are impacted, and how to move forward.

This is a long post in Q&A format. I keep it long because I feel these ideas are important.

How do secondary victims get help despite being secondary?

First, let’s define what a so-called “secondary” victim is. Victims can often be people you aren’t even aware of. They’re of course the people we quickly think of – friends and family of those who were killed (primary). But there are many others – “secondary”.

For instance: there were people that watched the shooter(s) kill their victims. There were people that heard the gunfire of either event. There were people that lived on nearby streets, were in lockdown nearby, who saw the wounded, who were first responders, etc. There are people trapped in the buildings that weren’t killed or injured. In whatever situation you are considering, try to consider people you normally wouldn’t think about who would have been affected.

So in other words, there are a LOT of victims. And it’s easy for them to go under the radar, because unless the news media exploits their story (and I do mean exploit, I’ll explain later) they are unknown to the public.

If you are friends with either a primary or secondary victim, it’s important to know that the experience most likely changed their life forever in some way shape or form. Right now is a time for you to know some mental health first aid:

If you don’t know what to say – don’t say anything. The BEST thing you can do is to be present, gentle and supportive. Cliched statements such as “well, everything happened for a reason” are much more harmful than helpful.

If you or someone you know was a victim and need more professional help, look for Community Crisis Response of some kind. Usually there is a center set up after such events by police departments, the Red Cross, or local mental health agencies. Note which agencies are there and be sure to ask what kind of extended help they provide.

If the victim is in the police report, they could be eligible to have mental health costs covered by the a local judicial district’s Victims Assistance Fund.

If not covered, many therapists work on a sliding scale – look for therapists qualified and trained in trauma treatments such as EMDR. Always find someone who says clearly on the phone or website that they are licensed and that specialize in trauma.

Also, of great service to me has been the Rebels Project online Facebook group. It is a group for victims of mass shootings and traumatic events to share their experiences with people who understand. This has given me personally a lot of support when I am triggered or processing something. Feel free to give this out to victims (both secondary and primary).

And please know – if you are a secondary victim, your experience is no less important or impactful than if you were a primary victim. If you are feeling fragile and jumpy, it’s okay to get help. If you are feeling frozen or numb, it’s okay to get help. Tell close family and friends what is going on. Ask for support. Find a good therapist. The better support you have, the more likely you will be to emotionally recover.

How can the community engage with this somewhat new reality?

It’s important to be aware of mental health first aid, especially knowing that there are many people impacted that you’re unaware of. Be aware that people will have a variety of triggers.

Mine, for instance, are screaming, loud bangs, and men who are behaving in a erratic way. I can also get triggered by news of new mass shootings, if I read the news too much. Sometimes I have to stay off social media after news of mass shootings. I used to also be triggered by sirens, emergency vehicles, and car accidents as well. Other people will have different triggers.

If you know a victim (primary or secondary) be very aware of this. Don’t shut them down for reacting in certain ways. If they literally run away from situations, if they hide from certain things, if they freak out for no reason, this is ALL normal. Those are ALL things that I have done.

Be very cognizant of what you say. For instance, there is a lot of talk right now about how college campuses utilize trigger warnings. It helped me immensely to have trigger warnings. I went to college after my sisters were murdered, and it was by far the place I felt most unsafe. I had a professor who warned the class about a video interview with a serial killer. I was extremely grateful because then I could choose to leave class before sitting there in shock.

I also experienced one of my worst triggers in a class in which a professor made an extremely inappropriate joke about the Aurora shootings. I was dissociated and couldn’t pay attention at all for about 20 minutes. So be sensitive to survivor experience.

Another huge thing is to realize that we will be dealing with this for years to come. It’s been 8 years and I still have triggers, albeit fewer than I did even 2 years ago. As a community, it’s important to ensure that supports remain in place on a continual basis.

We often forget the massive impact of traumatic events because of the media’s short cycle. Realize the victims are probably still processing in some way, shape, or form, even years later. Churches, community organizations, businesses, and schools should be especially aware of this as they endeavor to support their members.

And for the general population – if someone shares with you that they were affected by these events and are still processing, suspend judgment and just be present to their story. Listening and providing your emotional support (without having to say much beyond “I’m here”) is the best thing you can do. But, don’t be afraid to ask what happened! It helps after the media spotlight goes away to know people still care. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?”

While many people have an experience of losing a loved one, how is this different when it is in the public eye?

This changes the experience drastically. There is a whole set of expectations that comes with your tragedy being seen by the whole world (or your whole town, state, etc). Here are some expectations I’ve had placed on me, and my responses.

People (especially the media) expecting victims to tell their story

No one is constrained to tell their story publicly, even if the media covered the event. It’s up to the person involved. We as victims make the final call on whether we share or not. But, DO feel free to ask us as victims about what happened. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?” This leaves it open for us to say yes or no. Often the “yes” or “no” depends upon how safe we feel sharing with you.

People expecting victims to react a certain way emotionally when telling their story (crying, being very upset, etc).

Everyone deals with things differently, and trauma can further distort that. Just because I’m not crying doesn’t mean I’m not upset. But if I’m crying that doesn’t mean I’m falling apart, either. Maybe I’m just having a rough day. Suspend judgment about reactions and realize all of our stories are different. Trauma looks different for different people. It can sometimes look like startle response or crying. It can also look like dissociation, substance abuse, and numbing. Again, suspend judgment.

People having certain ideas about what victims are going through, based on media reports.

As victims, we may or may not be shattered by what happened. We may or may not be “over it and stronger as a result.” The media does not reflect our personal feelings most of the time. The spectrum holds a lot of gray, so some days, we could be shattered again. And some days, we could be doing great! And some days, we could be somewhere in between.

People having assumptions about victims beliefs/politics based on media reports or where the event occurred.

In my shooting, just because it was at a church doesn’t mean I’m still a Christian. Just because an armed guard took down the shooter doesn’t mean I’m pro/anti concealed carry. Victim beliefs and politics are not necessarily in line with public assumption. Just because a victim’s shooting happened at Planned Parenthood, or as a result of open carry, doesn’t mean their specific beliefs/politics align with the popular assumptions carried around those places or ideas. Be careful to not assume stories based on media representation or current political climate. Let victims tell the stories. Our beliefs are not a way to further a political platform, unless we choose to use them that way ourselves.

People seeing the fact that victims do sometimes choose to tell their story publicly, and telling them that “they’re so strong” for being able to do so.

What you see in a victim may not be strength or peace. It may be shock. My repetition of the story immediately afterwards looked like strength, because I didn’t break down and cry. As a matter of fact, it was not strength or peace, it was shock.

Not being able to have your private grief, because the media is looking at you – but then when media moves away, feeling abandoned – When the media is around, the public is completely involved in victim’s private grief. But conversely, when the media turns away, it can feel like the whole world has forgotten about you. Both suck. When it’s public, I felt like I couldn’t grieve the way I wanted. When the media turned away, I felt like my grief didn’t matter. It’s a catch 22. In this situation as a community, we can make sure we continue to support all victims of these tragedies months and YEARS to come (recovery takes years, my friends).

Have you experienced the feeling of someone using your experience for their gain in social capital?

Yes. The media especially is skilled with this. I’ve recently chosen to begun sharing my experiences more in the media, in the interest of shutting down the “sides” mentality we have around gun issues and encouraging more dialogue. (This is my position, not necessarily the position of other victims of shootings) When I share, I find my words get skewed. I am often made to sound more traumatized than I actually am. People love disaster stories; I call it disaster porn.

An example: I have widely shared the Gazette article I was recently in because it maintains my greater point, but some of the material was skewed. For instance, I did not hear sirens when I delivered food to the Penrose ER on Saturday morning. [Edit – the Gazette has since edited the article]

People often use victim’s stories to further their own aims or viewership. I implore you, media outlets – please do not exploit victim’s stories to improve your ratings. Be compassionate and aware. And as communities, we all need to be careful that we don’t exploit victims for our own ideas or political platforms.

Are victims of gun violence also a victim of the current politics of gun violence? Is there additional impact when the violence speaks from other political arenas?

In a word, yes. This is a huge area where the media can take advantage of victims. Currently, the media tends to portray sides within the politics of gun violence – pro-gun or ban guns. I personally have expressed a middle view of dialogue first, action or possible reform second. I have to be extremely careful how I word this, because if I don’t word it correctly, the media will portray me as being on one side or the other.

After I wrote my letter to Congress, many responses were revictimizing. The worst were people asking me about the armed guard Jeanne Assam that took down Matthew Murray in my shooting. Several people asked me why she didn’t play into what I wrote.

Their questions were indicative of wanting to convert me for one side or the other in the debate (in this case, pro/anti concealed carry). Problem being, they were not at New Life Church that day, and I was. Their attempt to tell me what to believe/write about was revictimizing. It was an attempt to steal my voice as a victim and to use me to further their own politics.

I can’t speak for the victims in other shootings. However, my experience has been that victims have a variety of political views, just like the general public does. Therefore:

It is not up to the public to assume any victim’s stance by seeing their status (i.e. police officer), situation (i.e. shooter openly carrying rifle) or where they were on that day (i.e. Planned Parenthood clinic). None of these things give us any real insight on victims’ political views or beliefs, and to assume and place labels on them is to revictimize them.

It is up to the victims of these shootings to state their political beliefs if they so choose. Until then, no assumption should be made about where they stand on any issues. All assumptions made are an act of re-victimization and the public stealing the victim’s voices for their own aims.

I want to end with this: Most importantly, as communities we need to step forward and support our victims. We need to be sensitive to what they need right now, and careful to not re-traumatize or re-victimize. There are hundreds of victims who need us right now. These are just some simple ways that as communities, we can support them for the months and years to come.

Advertisements

How to Respect Gun Violence Survivors on Social Media

A friend of mine requested that I write about this topic, and after seeing a video that’s been circulating my social media lately, I decided it was time.

When you are a shooting survivor, there are certain things that are hard to see in your feed. At least, there are for me, and I’ve heard the same from other survivors.

I’m not asking people to tiptoe around, always trying to figure out what to share in their feed without upsetting someone. Sometimes, things need to be shared that I personally can’t watch, because they’re important for other people to see.

But, here’s the best, BEST thing you can do. If you know that you know a shooting survivor, and you want to share something in your feed that:

  • Directly mentions a shooting
  • Depicts/discusses gun violence themes
  • Depicts/discusses graphic violence (bombings in Syria, for example)

Then I encourage you to send that person a private message, and ask – “should I share this? How can I share this?”

The messages I have appreciated most from friends are when friends have messaged me to alert me that a shooting has happened, so to be careful on my feed. Or to alert me of a particular video I should be careful watching. Or they message me to ask what kind of trigger warning they should put on something before sharing.

These all mean a lot to me and are extremely helpful, because then I can:

  • Make a decision about whether to be on social media that day
  • Make a decision about whether I am okay to view a certain video/read a post
  • Makes me feel considered and protected on my social media account because I know they are thinking about how to label things

On top of all that, I of course do a lot of my own screening for self care. I almost never watch videos out of Syria, for instance, because one of my biggest triggers is children screaming/people in distress. I can’t deal with it, so I choose not to watch it.

Even with doing my own screening, however, I can’t even explain my level of gratitude when I know that people are watching out for me on social media. I so appreciate when they send me a message to ask about how to share or whether to share something. Because one of the shittiest things for me is to be surprised by something in my feed. Getting blindsided by something is a part of a trigger for me, too… there’s a huge element of surprise and sneak attack involved in a shooting, and that’s hard to deal with. So it honestly feels PROTECTIVE for me when people are looking out for my wellbeing.

I also want to address the current video circulating. I’ve seen it mainly from Buzzfeed. It depicts a cute relationship beginning between a boy and girl scratching words into a desk. I (THANKFULLY) knew that the content required a trigger warning before watching it (Thank you, Lauren), or I would have freaked out. At the end, out of nowhere it is revealed that in the background, a student has been planning a shooting all along.

The problematic part of this video for me is the -out of nowhere- piece. There is a significant part of a shooting that is the unexpected factor; someone just starts shooting “out of nowhere.” You get blindsided. In my event, I never even saw the shooter and so there’s an aspect of “out of my field of vision” that’s really triggering for me personally, also.

If I had watched this video without a trigger warning, I would have had a breakdown. It just so happens this video is also circulating this week, and on Friday this week I have the 9th anniversary of my shooting. I don’t always know where I’m going to be emotionally during what I call “anniversary/hell week”, and so it was particularly helpful to have a trigger warning this week. Furthermore – the Sandy Hook shooting anniversary is on December 14th. There are lots of survivors out there right now.

So, with that in mind, I’m asking/imploring you to share this video with a content or trigger warning. Wording like “Trigger Warning: Gun violence/mass shooting” is helpful. Or even “themes of mass shooting.” Something to let us survivors know whether we should choose to watch it or not.  It helps us to feel more protected out in the world, which is sometimes a daily struggle. I think I can speak for more than just me when I say that we would all appreciate your thoughtfulness.

 

Terror Attack or Shooting? – A Poem

Trigger Warning: Mass shootings, gun violence, graphic depictions of violence.
I wrote this poem in response to the talk about the Pulse Orlando shooting being a terror attack because it was perpetrated by “possibly a Muslim”. As a shooting survivor, I have a lot of feelings about that.

Do not tell me what is a terror attack or what isn’t.
You do not know the ice of hearing windows shatter
You do not know the terror of hearing sister is shot
You know nothing of what bullets sound like hitting human flesh
or the screaming of your sisters
or the desperation of being on a phone to a 911 operative
begging them to come because my sisters have been shot
because my twin is lying in front of me on the floor of a minivan
with blood streaming out her nose
and she looks like she’s asleep but she won’t wake up
Do not tell me it is not terror
to try to hide behind a leather seat
to see bullets hitting windshield
to not see where they are coming from
to watch father fall to ground from one piercing him
to want it all to stop, stop, stop
but the bullets are ringing over and over and over
there is so much noise
time is so slow but it keeps going
do not tell me it is not terror
to rip a scarf from your body to try to stop twin sister’s bleeding
to have to look your twin over for an exit wound
do not tell me it is not terror to not have her answer you
to hear your mother saying “I can’t find a bullet hole
I can’t find one, oh God I can’t find one”
do not tell me it is no terror to stumble out of the car
to see other sister on the ground
with face blue from lack of oxygen
to feel your heart fall apart into your stomach as you know she is dying
to have to run from her because the shooter could be returning
to feel your soul is being ripped from your body
because your sisters’ souls are leaving you
do not tell me it is not terror
to wait for news of which hospitals they went to
to know on the way there that twin sister is gone
because you don’t feel her soul next to yours anymore
to watch a policeman speak what you already know while he is trying not to cry
do not tell me it is not terror
when father comes out of surgery, silently looks at you all
looking for the people missing
looks at you and asks where your twin is
and mother is quiet and says nothing so your mouth has to open
you say the worst words you have ever said
“Dad, Stephanie is gone.”
Do not tell me it is not terror
to stand by other sister’s bedside begging for her to come back to you
to sing all of her favorite songs in a desperate attempt for the bullet not to win
to try to cry it out of her heart and take the bullet into your own heart instead
to ask her to please not leave you alone here
do not tell me it is not terror to have the doctors
come out to waiting room to tell you that other sister is gone
that she has left you here alone despite all your begging

you say that a mass shooting is not a terror attack
unless it happens to have a Muslim face behind it
I want to tell you to fuck yourself and wait until you live one.

On Embodying Resilience

Sometimes I feel like my body is distilled to a point in the center of me that is atom bomb explosive. It’s a point in the middle of my solar plexus that I curve around as it pulls me into its contraction. It tightens and I can’t feel my extremities.

My fingers seem alien. My face in the mirror looks like a stranger. I look down at my feet and wonder how I can’t feel the floor underneath them. My whole body shakes with earthquake anxiety and fear, and I’m trapped in a brutal prison with many layers. Like Inception, it’s like a dream within a dream – my own mind keeps me here.

But then, ever so slowly, I started to uncurl. My hands flexed and like petals, I could feel my phalanges moving from the inside.

My yoga teacher, Jessica Patterson, has said a handful of times to feel into sensation rather than the story of what is happening. And, in moments where you are distilled into feeling one thing, find something slightly different on the spectrum to feel. I was exploring this and slowly began to understand.

When I say slowly, I mean it like the process of a bulb that was planted in winter and will come up in early spring. What’s it doing all winter? Are the leaves inside of the bulb loosening, starting to feel the cover of soil around them, starting to feel the veins that will grace their leaves? Was I starting to feel the blood in my veins, letting it coax me out of my shell into black soil above me?

I took her advice literally. The next time I started having a panic attack, instead of feeling the ice core in the center of my stomach, I felt my arms. The hair dancing down the length of them, and the air that ever-so-slightly danced across their surface.

Something at my core melted. Baby leaves started to uncurl a wee bit, searching for the sun.

As I did this more and more often, I started taking this habit into my yoga practice. Anxious, mind-racing morning? Well, what else did I feel? How do my feet feel on my mat? How do my thighs feel in high crescent lunge? If that’s too intense, can I focus on the feeling in my shoulders, instead?

While I was starting on this process, I happened upon another hugely influential teacher. At a friend’s book swap (yes, that’s a thing, and it’s quite delightful) I came across the book Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach. I picked it up at the swap and couldn’t put it down, so I brought it home.

I haven’t even read the whole book, to be honest. I just pick it up and read little chapters as I need them. I’ve re-read the chapter on fear several times, as well as the one about coming home to your body. If I were to read the whole book, I’d think I’d “learned it” and I don’t know if I’d ever pick it up again. So I cherry pick… I’d rather learn slowly than blaze through and not digest.

Interestingly enough, she was talking about the process I’d started in myself. Feeling slowly into sensation, rather than the story behind the feeling I was having. How did fear feel in my body? What about anger? And when I am feeling this way, what does the rest of my body feel like?

With these practices, I’ve been coming back into a body filled with creaks, and shakes, and sudden startles. As my body rushes with feeling, I am slowly learning to let go of the story. If my legs get jumpy, I simply notice rather than deciding it means some certain thing about me. If my abdomen tightens, I surround it with compassion, and breathe into it. And if that gets too strong, I notice – what do my fingers feel right now? My toes? Are they cold or hot? Achy? Strong? Quiet?

When I stop practicing this, I can tell. Recently, I’ve been ridiculously busy trying to start a new nonprofit, the Colorado Springs Resilience Center. Even though I’m keenly aware I have to upkeep my own resilience while starting this, I have lost my practice from time to time.

I can tell this because I stop feeling so close to people. I feel a little disconnected, kind of floaty. I feel disconnected, too, from my own words. And then I start to feel the panicky kick of anxiety, like a little ice-baby, in my stomach.

Last week, I surrendered back to my practice. And I noticed how much I wanted to run from it. I’ve made this sound so far like, “Oh, I just do this, no big.” But when I dip my toes into it, my mind wants to pull back. “Just go drink your coffee. Go eat your breakfast. This morning practice isn’t going to do much for you. You don’t want to feel all this shit anyway. Don’t do it.

I very gently just watched all these thoughts, and my inner resistance to coming back to my body, and at the core of that, my fear at what I was feeling. The fear wouldn’t let up during my practice… and that indeed was not the point. I knew that I was just going to need to really SEE myself, and that was the point.

When I’m doing this observation work, having an anchor has helped. I keep a candle on my table surrounded by plants. The candle is one of those memorial candles – The Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I don’t call myself a Christian… and I believe a LOT of things. I believe in a Power without gender. To some extent I believe in a goddess energy… I feel it and see it around me in the earth. I am a mystic and lover of all mysticism from Islamic, to Buddhist, to Hindu. I adore devotion. There is something about the Muslim doing namaz five times a day that inspires me, for instance. That devotion is something I want to curate in my own heart.

And yet in the middle of all my strange views about spirituality, I still grew up with the sacred heart of Jesus carrying me through everything. The true heart of Jesus was the first place I found that mystic energy. I hear it in Gregorian chants, especially Kyrie Eleison (which can bring me to tears). Lord, have mercy. There’s a tenderness to that, and a strength. Masculine and feminine united.

I have felt the same energy throughout other religions (this is WHY I am not a Christian, I find it everywhere). I feel it, to the horror of many Americans, upon hearing the Muslim call to prayer. I feel it in my yoga studio. I have felt it in the heart of a friend’s friend who was Wiccan. I have felt it in the heart of another friend who believes in the Goddess. I feel it in the heart of a Vine star who offers their words of authenticity and their eyes are so genuine that it is obvious they practice Zen meditation. I feel it in churches, meditation rooms, yoga studios, sacred rituals, in the banjo music of my friend’s bluegrass band.

It is the Sacred Heart of Jesus… and it is everything else.

That energy is what I put my faith in when I come to the mat. When I feel my feet on the mat, whether in Mountain form, or in a crescent lunge, I rest in that inherent loving energy that holds up all things. I offer my devotion to that energy.

That strong resting place gives me the courage to listen to the terrifying feelings I find in my body. It is the soil that coaxes my leaves to unfurl and slowly, slowly extend towards the life-giving sun.

And as I feel the warmth on my skin, I notice.

In the noticing the resilience slowly blooms forth.

 

Doing Something With My Heartbreak

I’ve been away for awhile, but it’s not because I’m sittin’ around, feet up, with a nice cold one in my hand.

I have never been one to do nothing with my heartbreak.

I believe in doing something with what I say. The people closest to me will tell you that my biggest pet peeve is that when someone says something, and then doesn’t follow through on what they say. I refuse to be one of those people.

Remember how I wrote at the end of last year on how to support victims after a mass shooting? And how I also wrote at the end of last year about creating dialogue around gun violence?

Well, I’ve been working very, very hard on things to follow up on both of those. I’ve been a busy little bee, community organizing and meeting amazing people throughout the community.

One of the things that I am helping to head up around creating dialogue is happening this month. On April 17th at 2pm, in my neighborhood, we will be having a silent walk to commemorate victims of gun violence.

Why my neighborhood? Because I live in the Shooks Run Neighborhood, where on October 31, 2015, a man open carried an AR-15, opened fire, and killed 3 people before being killed by police.

It struck close to my heart, in some ways literally and in some ways figuratively. I had to take a month to feel it all.

Needless to say, it’s definitely a part of why I haven’t written. Heartbreak comes in waves. I had to wait out the tide. And the timing was really hard, too, because only weeks before, I’d written my letter to Congress.

Then 27 days later, impossibly, there was another shooting, this time at Planned Parenthood about 2 miles away from me. For the 2nd time in 27 days, my city was on national news. My heart broke.

But with my heartbreak, I did something. I started a GoFundMe and was amazed as the community stepped forward. We raised $1000 in 4 hours over social media to take catered Panera Bread to staff at both hospitals where victims were taken.

I needed my time to grieve… but I have never been one to do nothing with heart break.

Then an opportunity came in early December for me to join a group of artists and community organizers in Colorado Springs. They were all interested in reclaiming safe space, and I jumped at it. The overall heartfelt response from the group was an interest creating de-politicized, safe space around the common heartache that everyone shares around gun violence.

This, honestly, was the only reason I even joined the group. Since the Planned Parenthood shooting, I’ve been very careful not to have much of any political conversation around gun violence. There was so much infighting after that shooting. I wasn’t ready to speak until I had a safe place to speak in. I wanted to be part of a group that brought a safe place to explore the heartache beneath the positions.

The amazing organizers at Common Space Collective that I’m working with are creating that safe space.

And we want to reclaim our common space, so we’re going to have a silent walk.

April 17, 2pm. Corner of Kiowa and El Paso. Walking through the neighborhood taking the same route that the shooter took. Ending at First Congregational Church for a short workshop on how to listen.

This is my town. These are my people. My neighborhood. And I’m doing something like this because I believe in it. I have never been a person to just believe in something without putting action to my beliefs. This is my way to say, to myself and my community – “You are safe here. We’re here with you.”

Join me?


 

RSVP to the Facebook Event here: Silent Walk Honoring Victims of Gun Violence
For more information on Common Space Collective, go here: Common Space Collective

And stay tuned here at my site, more announcements to come!

Supporting Victims in the Aftermath of COS Shootings

On Saturday, I was approached by a community leader wanting to know victim and community impact after a shooting. As a shooting survivor, I have an intimate view on victim support after a mass shooting. And in light of both of the recent shootings here in Colorado Springs, I wanted to let the community know how victims are impacted, and how to move forward.

This is a long post in Q&A format. I kept it long because I feel these ideas are important.

How do secondary victims get help despite being secondary?
First, let’s define what a so-called “secondary” victim is. Victims can often be people you aren’t even aware of. They’re of course the people we quickly think of – friends and family of those who were killed (primary). But there are many others – “secondary”.

For instance: there were people that watched either shooter kill his victims. There were people that heard the gunfire of either event. There were people that lived on the streets where the Halloween shooter began or enacted his rampage (I happen to live on that street myself). There were the hundreds of people who had to shelter in place in the Centennial shopping center on Friday afternoon for 5 hours. There were the hostages that were trapped inside Planned Parenthood until the police were able to extricate them.

In other words, there are a LOT of victims. And it’s easy for them to go under the radar, because unless the news media exploits their story (and I do mean exploit, I’ll explain later) they are unknown to the public.

If you are friends with either a primary or secondary victim, it’s important to know that the experience most likely changed their life forever in some way shape or form. Right now is a time for you to know some mental health first aid:

472636746_1280x720

If you don’t know what to say – don’t say anything. The BEST thing you can do is to be present, gentle and supportive. Cliched statements such as “well, everything happened for a reason” are much more harmful than helpful.

If you or someone you know was a victim and need more professional help, there is a Community Crisis Recovery Center set up right now to provide resources. If the victim is in the police report, they could be eligible to have mental health costs covered by the 4th Judicial District Victims Assistance Fund (also present at the Community Crisis Recovery Center).

If not covered, many therapists work on a sliding scale – I am putting together a list of COS Trauma Therapists here. AspenPointe also has a 24/7 Community Crisis unit. And if you are on the UCCS campus, utilize the Counseling Center. They have many quality LPCs and PhDs that can provide effective counseling or mental health services.

Also, of great service to me has been the Rebels Project online Facebook group. It is a group for victims of mass shootings and traumatic events to share their experiences with people who understand. This has given me personally a lot of support when I am triggered or processing something.

If you are a secondary victim, your experience is no less important or impactful than if you were a primary victim. If you are feeling fragile and jumpy, it’s okay to get help. If you are feeling frozen or numb, it’s okay to get help. Tell close family and friends what is going on. Ask for support. Find a good therapist. The better support you have, the more likely you will be to emotionally recover.

 

How can the community engage with this somewhat new reality?

It’s important to be aware of mental health first aid, especially knowing that there are many people impacted that you’re unaware of. Be aware that people will have a variety of triggers.

Mine, for instance, are screaming, loud bangs, and men who are behaving in a erratic way. I can also get triggered by news of new mass shootings, if I read the news too much. Sometimes I have to stay off social media after news of mass shootings. I used to also be triggered by sirens, emergency vehicles, and car accidents as well. Other people will have different triggers.

If you know a victim (primary or secondary) be very aware of this. Don’t shut them down for reacting in certain ways. If they literally run away from situations, if they hide from certain things, if they freak out for no reason, this is ALL normal. Those are ALL things that I have done.

Be very cognizant of what you say. For instance, there is a lot of talk right now about how college campuses utilize trigger warnings. It helped me immensely to have trigger warnings. I went to college after my sisters were murdered, and it was by far the place I felt most unsafe. I had a professor who warned the class about a video interview with a serial killer. I was extremely grateful because then I could choose to leave class before sitting there in shock.

I also experienced one of my worst triggers in a class in which a professor made an extremely inappropriate joke about the Aurora shootings. I was dissociated and couldn’t pay attention at all for about 20 minutes. So be sensitive to survivor experience.

Another huge thing is to realize that we will be dealing with this for years to come. It’s been 8 years and I still have triggers, albeit fewer than I did even 2 years ago. As a community, it’s important to ensure that supports remain in place on a continual basis.

We often forget the massive impact of traumatic events because of the media’s short cycle. Realize the victims are probably still processing in some way, shape, or form, even years later. Churches, community organizations, businesses, and schools should be especially aware of this as they endeavor to support their members.

And for the general population – if someone shares with you that they were affected by these events and are still processing, suspend judgment and just be present to their story. Listening and providing your emotional support (without having to say much beyond “I’m here”) is the best thing you can do. But, don’t be afraid to ask what happened! It helps after the media spotlight goes away to know people still care. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?

 

While many people have an experience of losing a loved one, how is this different when it is in the public eye?

This changes the experience drastically. There is a whole set of expectations that comes with your tragedy being seen by the whole world (or your whole town, state, etc). Here are some expectations I’ve had placed on me, and my responses.

People (especially the media) expecting victims to tell their storyNo one is constrained to tell their story publicly, even if the media covered the event. It’s up to the person involved. We as victims make the final call on whether we share or not. But, DO feel free to ask us as victims about what happened. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?” This leaves it open for us to say yes or no. Often the “yes” or “no” depends upon how safe we feel sharing with you.

People expecting victims to react a certain way emotionally when telling their story (crying, being very upset, etc). – Everyone deals with things differently, and trauma can further distort that. Just because I’m not crying doesn’t mean I’m not upset. But if I’m crying that doesn’t mean I’m falling apart, either. Maybe I’m just having a rough day. Suspend judgment about reactions and realize all of our stories are different.

People having certain ideas about what victims are going through, based on media reports.As victims, we may or may not be shattered by what happened. We may or may not be “over it and stronger as a result.” The media does not reflect our personal feelings most of the time.

People having assumptions about victims beliefs/politics based on media reports or where the event occurred.In my shooting, just because it was at a church doesn’t mean I’m still a Christian. Just because an armed guard took down the shooter doesn’t mean I’m pro/anti concealed carry. Victim beliefs and politics are not necessarily in line with public assumption. Just because a victim’s shooting happened at Planned Parenthood, or as a result of open carry, doesn’t mean their specific beliefs/politics align with the popular assumptions carried around those places or ideas. Be careful to not assume stories based on media representation or current political climate. Let victims tell the stories. Our beliefs are not a way to further a political platform, unless we choose to use them that way ourselves.

People seeing the fact that victims do sometimes choose to tell their story publicly, and telling them that “they’re so strong” for being able to do so.What you see in a victim may not be strength or peace. It may be shock. My repetition of the story immediately afterwards looked like strength, because I didn’t break down and cry. As a matter of fact, it was not strength or peace, it was shock.

Not being able to have your private grief, because the media is looking at you – but then when media moves away, feeling abandoned – When the media is around, the public is completely involved in victim’s private grief. But conversely, when the media turns away, it can feel like the whole world has forgotten about you. Both suck. When it’s public, I felt like I couldn’t grieve the way I wanted. When the media turned away, I felt like my grief didn’t matter. It’s a catch 22. In this situation as a community, we can make sure we continue to support all victims of these tragedies months and YEARS to come (recovery takes years, my friends).

 

 

With the sharing of information at our fingertips, entities are constantly trying to beat each other to this “social equity” , up to the point of obtaining it within minutes of an incident or positive ID.  Have you experienced the feeling of someone using your experience for their gain in social capital? 

Yes. The media especially is skilled with this. I’ve recently chosen to begun sharing my experiences more in the media, in the interest of shutting down the “sides” mentality we have around gun issues and encouraging more dialogue. (This is my position, not necessarily the position of other victims of shootings) When I share, I find my words get skewed. I am often made to sound more traumatized than I actually am. People love disaster stories; I call it disaster porn.

An example: I have widely shared the Gazette article I was recently in because it maintains my greater point, but some of the material was skewed. For instance, I did not hear sirens when I delivered food to the Penrose ER on Saturday morning. [Editthe Gazette has since edited the article]

People often use victim’s stories to further their own aims or viewership. I implore you, local media – please do not exploit victim’s stories to improve your ratings. Be compassionate and aware. And as a community, we all need to be careful that we don’t exploit victims for our own ideas or political platforms.

Are victims of gun violence also a victim of the current politics of gun violence?  Can it be a double whammy (victimized from all sides)? Is there additional impact when the violence speaks from other political arenas?

In a word, yes. This is a huge area where the media can take advantage of victims. Currently, the media tends to portray sides within the politics of gun violence – pro-gun or ban guns. I personally have expressed a middle view of dialogue first, action or possible reform second. I have to be extremely careful how I word this, because if I don’t word it correctly, the media will portray me as being on one side or the other.

After I wrote my letter to Congress, many responses were revictimizing. The worst were people asking me about the armed guard Jeanne Assam that took down Matthew Murray in my shooting. Several people asked me why she didn’t play into what I wrote.

Their questions were indicative of wanting to convert me for one side or the other in the debate (in this case, pro/anti concealed carry). Problem being, they were not at New Life Church that day, and I was. Their attempt to tell me what to believe/write about was revictimizing. It was an attempt to steal my voice as a victim and to use me to further their own politics.

I can’t speak for the victims in these past two shootings. However, my experience has been that victims have a variety of political views, just like the general public does. Therefore:

It is not up to the public to assume any victim’s stance by seeing their status (i.e. police officer), situation (i.e. shooter openly carrying rifle) or where they were on that day (i.e. Planned Parenthood clinic). None of these things give us any real insight on victims’ political views or beliefs, and to assume and place labels on them is to revictimize them.

It is up to the victims of these shootings to state their political beliefs if they so choose. Until then, no assumption should be made about where they stand on any issues. All assumptions made are an act of re-victimization and the public stealing the victim’s voices for their own aims.

 

I want to end with this: Most importantly, we are a community and we need to step forward and support our victims. We need to be sensitive to what they need right now, and careful to not re-traumatize or re-victimize. Between Halloween and the Planned Parenthood shooting, there are hundreds of victims who need us right now. These are just some simple ways that we as a community can support them for the months and years to come.


 

If there are any other questions that anyone is interested in, I am willing to write a follow up post. Please leave your questions in the comments. Commenters from Colorado Springs will have priority.

I’m also interested to hear any other thoughts or in put on this – please share!