December 9, 2007, I was witness to an unthinkable tragedy. I was walking out of New Life Church in Colorado Springs that Sunday when a gunman opened fire on our family minivan. The shooter killed my twin sister Stephanie and younger sister Rachel and non-critically wounded my father. The past 10 years have been a journey of healing from the most horrific event of my life.
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. It’s easy for these people to go under the radar, because unless the news media exploits their story, 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” can be 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. Feel free to give this out to victims (both secondary and primary).
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. 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 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 10 years and I still have triggers, albeit fewer than I did even two 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.
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 - we can be great, or shattered, or anywhere between.
People having assumptions about victims beliefs/politics based on media reports or where the event occurred.
For instance, 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.
Often, others can attempt to steal victim stories to further a political platform or quest for personal glory.
This is revictimizing. There have been many attempts by others to steal my voice as a victim and to use me to further their own politics. After I wrote my letter to Congress, many responses were revictimizing to me, and were attempts by the media and others to shape their narratives.
Be careful to not assume stories or experiences based on media representation or current political climate. Let victims tell the stories. Our beliefs are not a way to further a political platform or a way to further a narrative, unless we choose to use them that way ourselves.
People telling victims that “they’re so strong” for being able to share their story publicly.
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. As communities, we can make sure we continue to support all victims of these tragedies months and YEARS to come.
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.