04/17/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

We're All Innocent Bystanders: Healing After the Marathon


On Patriot's Day weekend 2006, I was one of those people the press calls "an innocent bystander." By random chance, I was swept up in a series of events that began with two murders and climaxed in a SWAT team operation ending in a suicide. I returned home many hours later physically unharmed. While others died or went to bed that night mourning the loss of a loved one, I could lift my sleeping daughter from her crib and kiss her, even as I wept.

Like many who have witnessed crimes, I tried to discount what I had been through, simply because I was alive to do so. But this is the truth: Innocent bystanders are forcibly made participants in the events they witness. And for their health and well-being, they need to acknowledge that they must recover, too. At this year's Boston Marathon, my whole city became innocent bystanders, and we're all going to need a little time.

My first clue that I wasn't OK with the shootings seven years ago came when I was brushing my teeth and saw, in the bathroom mirror, blood, not my own, streaking down the side of my neck. The shooter was sitting directly behind me when he ended his life, and it was no surprise that I would be wearing his blood. But this visceral sight shook me. I couldn't shower long enough afterward to make it feel OK. I crawled into bed in the pre-dawn dark trembling.

It was only hours later when my hometown held its annual Patriot's Day Parade, which I attended numbly, thinking of the night's events as surreal and somehow even distant. But my town's parade always includes militiamen, who pause every so often to fire muskets, their loud reports echoing for blocks. At the first sound of gunfire, I felt faint, then burst into tears and fled the parade as if trying to wake up from a terrible dream.

A week later, after continually telling people that I was fine and lucky -- that, since I escaped unscathed, what had happened hadn't happened to me -- I ended up in a medical clinic receiving IV fluids. I was badly dehydrated because I'd been in such a fog that I'd stopped eating and drinking; I'd been working so hard to not acknowledge my own grief and fear that I'd ended up needing medical care.

The nurse giving me my fourth round of fluids restored me physically, but it was a therapist who started the internal repairs by saying, "Of course it happened to you -- you were there. And you have to accept it's in you now."

In the years since, the sting and horror have lessened dramatically, but I think about it every year at Patriot's Day. And that has never been so keenly true as this year, when so many people -- not just locally but live on TV -- experienced the attacks on the marathon. I hope everyone who witnessed the event, especially those on the streets of Boston yesterday, will know enough to not diminish their experience, and, instead, acknowledge that yes, this has happened to them, and it is in them now.

For all who have been touched by the marathon explosions, in the days ahead, physically take care of yourself: Drink water, eat something, rest -- even though that may not mean sleep. Be grateful for your own safety but don't imagine away your own emotional pain and suffering. Talk about it, with others who were there and those who were not, in whatever way makes you feel comfortable. Prepare yourself for feelings of anxiety and sadness prompted by things that might seem obvious -- hearing loud noises, stumbling across new coverage, even seeing a jogger run by -- and things that have no bearing on your own physical memory at all. There is no shame in not having an easy handle on your feelings about what has transpired.

As the years go by, you will incorporate this experience into the myriad memories and moments that inform you. But try to cling not only to the trauma, but as well to the bright beams of human goodness that broke through the smoke of the bombing. Remember all the runners and spectators who, after the first shock passed, ran toward the site of the explosion to help, and not just away from it. Remember all the volunteer medical personnel dropping what they were doing all over the city and racing to the streets and hospitals. Remember all the local people offering homes, food, and transportation to stranded and traumatized race attendees.

We are all innocent bystanders to tragedy now. Americans live in era of terrible violence, which finds us in our movie theaters and our schools and our streets full of joyful citizens. Those who do such terrible deeds seem to have forgotten what it means to be human. But we don't have to. We celebrate our humanity now by taking care of ourselves and each other in the aftermath, and ever after by focusing on the best of our natures despite what we've lost. The best we can do to mute the power of such attacks is to cling to and elevate all that is good, brave, and enduring, cheering each other on for the race ahead.

For more by David Valdes Greenwood, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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