After the School Shootings

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It’s estimated that over 50% of us will endure a traumatic loss at some point in our lives. When that happens, we all face a similar fork in the road to recovery. Do we dare act normal again, or does doing so deny the event, since nothing is ever the same at all?

In the same way, we face a choice around the rituals of burial and healing. Is it proper to stick to one’s normal scripted rituals, or does this particular trauma call for something extra, something improvised?

The bizarre chain of recent school shootings have particularly challenged us with this dilemma. The shootings are so inexplicable that traditional ways of honoring the dead seem to pale. When these rituals were first scripted, did anyone conceive that they would need to address a loss as unfathomable as this? And how do the rest of us mourn respectfully without looking like we’re rubbernecking at a car accident?

Thus, in Bailey, Colorado, the family of slain Emily Keyes had a traditional Protestant memorial attended by several thousand people. But this alone wasn’t enough for the community. The Catholics had a vigil; the Lutherans had a prayer service; the kids had a bonfire. Pink balloons were released during the next football game, with “I love you guys” painted on the field. Most memorably, the family asked America to respond to this random act of violence with random acts of kindness. Not an eye for an eye, but random good for random evil.

Meanwhile, the Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, are sticking by their traditional rituals to the letter. And they’re having to fight off helicopters and TV trucks to do it. For them, there is no need to publicly proclaim one’s depth of grief, for even this is ritualized — during the funeral processions, each buggy hangs a number on the side; the lower the number, the closer the connection to the deceased. The mothers of the girls will wear black for a year. The schoolhouse will likely be burned down, so there won’t be a structure that, just to look at it, forces them to confront their nightmares. But these rituals will be replaced very soon with the traditions of autumn — harvest is looming; the fields need to be cut. They’ll be returning to work quicker than most of us could imagine.

The process of how people heal from severe trauma has been well studied. Acting visibly normal, after a short disruption, is actually the most common reaction to severe trauma. About half those directly affected will quickly return to holding conversations, eating meals, getting out of bed, and resuming work. Even though they’re the majority, those who are capable of this have their own sort of guilt, confused by their own resilience. Too often we outsiders presume these people are in denial of their grief, or that they’re “acting healed” too soon. For those who respond this way, normalcy is not healing itself — it’s merely a conduit to healing. Their sadness should not be measured by their ability to function. We may wish we could make a grand gesture, but getting shoes on and out the door may be testament enough.

Another quarter of those exposed to severe trauma will gradually recover to normal functioning over the next 18 months. The rest are split between chronic disruption — never able to act normal again — and those who have a delayed reaction; they can act normal for a while, but gradually lose it. Since we never know which individuals will fall into which pattern, we now recognize that it can actually be unhelpful to intervene too soon, pushing one style of healing on them all.

Yet we all want to help, and in our offers are tacit presumptions about the right way to heal.

“Come to my church.”

“You should get out more.”

And the most common one, “It’s okay to cry.”

The Amish process of grieving, with its emphasis on forgiveness, is awe-inspiring. There appears to be no waiting period; already, one father of the victims has met with the family of Charles Roberts, the shooter, to show he bears no grudge. Though their culture does not allow the Amish to accept gifts from outside their community, they still have set up two funds for those who want to donate — one in name of the five victims, and one in name of the Roberts family.

The opposite occurred in Montreal. In mid-September, a 25-year-old stormed into the local college and shot 20, killing one. The parents of the slain girl had no interest in meeting the parents of the murderer, who hoped to offer condolences. By comparison, this seems vengeful. But who are we to judge? Each family handles it differently; we ache for all of them.

In fact, this is the lesson of a conference held every August for parents of murdered children. This year it was held in Phoenix. The parents are divided 50-50 between those who want vengeance and those who have offered mercy. So they wander between seminars, and for every parent seeking legal help to ensure their child’s murderer gets the maximum sentence, there was another parent who had forgiven the murderer, in person, and even embraced him. A main reason this conference has lasted for 28 years is because both kinds of parents are welcome.

Next week, the White House will convene a summit on the shootings. We hope that not every seminar will be about security cameras, intruder training and violent video games. Pretending we can prevent these bizarre events isn’t very reassuring right now. We hope equal time is given to the alternative ways of coping, with right and wrong left out of the room.