Dr. Carolyn Mears suffered her own trauma in 1999, when her son survived the tragic Columbine High School shooting, and the experience served as a catalyst towards earning her doctorate. She now serves as dissertation adviser and adjunct faculty at the University of Denver, specializing in trauma and trauma recovery– a timely subject in the wake of recent mass shootings that have resulted in dozens of deaths. Last week, we spoke about how trauma differs from (and overlaps with) grief, and how different people respond after a life-changing event. Today, we continue the conversation by discussing the ways that family, friends, and communities can ease the difficult road to recovery for survivors.
Liz: What are some of the ways others can help those suffering from trauma—not only family and friends, but also schools, communities, workplaces?
Carolyn: We can all invest a little time in learning about trauma and what to expect—and that’s more than just getting a list of the symptoms of PTSD. We need to understand the overall effect of trauma on the way people live their lives. You might see people acting in a way that attempts to reassert control over their environment. And as I mentioned before, there’s a sense of powerlessness, and so you might also find people becoming very defensive and angry if they don’t get their way. Rather than merely deciding that this person is a real jerk or a rage-filled lunatic, we need to think about why he or she is acting like that; if there’s been trauma, this person may need to have more voice in making decisions. The same goes for those who withdraw from friends and family—avoiding interaction may be a coping strategy.
One of the reasons I wrote my book Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma is so schools and communities would understand how to work with a child or student living with the effects of trauma. That includes giving the student some choice and voice in what happens to them, and allowing them to participate in decision-making discussions. It’s not to say the student should always get their way by any means, but letting them contribute to the discussion gives them some power back.
The same goes for an institution, a business, or a community where you may have public service workers like police and fire personnel who have been intimately involved in a traumatic situation. It’s important to allow time for processing, give people time off as is possible and needed, and provide opportunities for job-sharing if it’s a large-scale trauma. A gradual re-entry into a routine is really, really helpful. Some people may need longer than others to return to a regular 40-hour work week.
Then there’s individual trauma—for example, physical assault, surviving a fatal traffic accident, or discovering the suicide of a loved one. These are very traumatic situations, and yet they won’t hit the papers and gain the support and awareness that a mass shooting or an earthquake or other disaster would. So it’s important to see trauma as a universal experience. It’s not just the big disasters we hear on the news. Trauma lives within our own lives, in the unexpected situations that we’re powerless in. We all need to learn more about trauma and find ways to accommodate for its effects.
For those working with people with trauma, understand that trauma brings a special need. It’s not to say that we need to enable or encourage people to stay where they are, instead of moving forward, but it needs to be considered in the same way that other special needs are.
Liz: You mentioned in your Guardian blog piece that Columbine High School took measures to reduce trauma triggers for students after the shootings—for example, building a new library, removing the food that was served that day from the menu, banning balloons (which sound like gunfire when popped). Do you feel these types of measures are valuable?
Carolyn: Yes, I really do. I think it’s important to consider such changes, and to talk to or listen to survivors and people who are affected by the event and ask them what they recommend. What do they see as problematic? Where do they see attention needs to be given? That’s the first step in empowering them toward reclaiming life.
After the shootings at Columbine, the kids could not go into the library. They couldn’t even go into libraries at other schools, because the associations with that place were so intense. It triggered biological responses, like anxiety attacks; and you can’t learn in a situation like that. So school leaders listened to the kids, the teachers, the parents, and then they made some of the necessary changes. They couldn’t do everything—they couldn’t tear down all the school buildings—but it was something. For those affected, you could say, “I may not have gotten everything I needed, but I got some things, and this will make it better.”
That’s also true for things like the food and the sound of popping balloons. We went with our son to a funeral for two of the children who were killed. As we were leaving the church, the police motorcade had just started, and the police hit the siren on their patrol car to clear the street. My son went stiff as a board. He turned totally white and just sobbed—I reached over to hug him, and I thought he was going to break me in half. He was just so tense. It was the sound of the siren that immediately triggered that response.
There needs to be awareness that traumatic events happen, and they cause responses that have to be addressed. It has to be part of policy, decision-making, and basic planning.
Liz: Lastly, what advice do you have for family, friends, loved ones of a person who has had a traumatic experience?
Carolyn: Don’t encourage people to just get over it, or say, “It’ll be okay.” These are trite little aphorisms that we tend to say to people. It will never be okay that this happened. You will be able to move on and live a happy, meaningful life, but it will never be okay. Listen with love, but don’t offer platitudes—really think about the words that you use when talking with folks experiencing traumatic loss, and allow people time to come to terms with what has happened. Don’t expect people to go back to that old “normal” from before. A new normal can be built—trauma is part of our permanent memory, and our memories and life experience all add to what and who we are.
But, if you see any behavior or actions that appear threatening, either to that person or to others—get help immediately. Do not be in denial to the point where you miss really important clues. It’s important for people suffering from trauma to get the help they need. What they are experiencing is a natural outcome of the trauma, and denial or downplaying won’t make it go away.
We can all invest a little time in learning about trauma and what to expect—and that’s more than just getting a list of the symptoms of PTSD. We need to understand the overall effect of trauma on the way people live their lives.
I would say that one thing that helped many of us was finding renewed purpose. Gerda Weissmann Klein had survived horrible, dreadful loss in World War II, when her entire family was killed by the Nazis. After the shootings, she came to Columbine to help, and she told students that they could put their experience to use. “Pain should never be wasted,” she told them.
So one of the things that helped a lot of the kids and teachers and staff was finding a way to share, to help others, and to put their painful experience to use. It’s not going to happen immediately, but working for the benefit of others can be very therapeutic and helpful.
Lastly, find a way to share the stories of the experience with a trusted loved one. Don’t bottle it up; find a trusted friend to speak with. It helps to talk with someone who cares.
Liz: Wonderful advice. Thanks so much for speaking with us about this important topic, Carolyn.