how to respond to unbelievably horrific happenings

Days like this are hard for everyone. When you have lost a loved one to gun violence, have yourself been present during a shooting, have been shot, are connected to someone who has killed someone else with a gun, or are a person who has been working to reduce gun violence, days like this are surreal. I fit into a couple of those categories and know many, many others who fit into some that I don’t. I’m sure that they have even more direction for us as we move through these next few days than I do. Even still, I feel a need to toss some things that I have learned (in responding to my own loss to gun violence and to those of others) out into the cultural wind, hoping that they might provide hand-holds or temporary solace on a day containing so much pain.

Feel ALL the feels. Most of us have an unconscious, unsolicited response to violence. Sometimes, out of a feeling of pure powerlessness, apathy surfaces. More commonly, however, is a strong first feeling of either anger or sadness. These emotional responses make sense. Given how out of control and helpless we feel, it is understandable when our strong emotions drive us to take action. We are angry so we decry, in all the places that we can think of, our cultural apathy and indescretions; ranting, “No one has been doing anything about this!!” completely overlooking the tireless work that has been going on and disregarding the fact that the victims of the trauma and their families care nothing, today, about politics.  Or, we are sad, so we attend a vigil and weep in our homes, forgetting that we could harness our deep grief into forms of action in the days, weeks, and months to come. I have been on both sides of this anger-sadness continuum.

In order to remain healthy and to work toward a safer world, it is best if we give our selves spaces to feel ALL the feels, rather than just the first ones that register. It’s important to feel both anger and sadness as well as the myriad of other feelings that may come. Each has an important role in educating and shaping us. Our anger, when felt all the way through to the other side, can empower and inform us of actions we might take to prevent further trauma. Our sadness honors the lives of those lost and also of the families and friends that are forced to live through these first few days of unbelievable shock. They need us to feel sadness in order to direct our anger well and to remind us of why our advocacy efforts matter.

To this end it is important to find spaces to feel our feelings all the way through. This will sometimes require us to…

Take breaks from social media and the news. In our current connected economy it can feel hard to step away. We might miss something, we might not hear of current developments, we might not get to weigh in on everyone’s ill informed status updates. If and as you can, however, walk away from all media and screens. Look toward something neutral at least and beautiful at best. Constant input (especially looping input that is the same input or message over and over and over) exhaust and drains us. The world, on days like today, needs people who are able to feel the feels, plan actions to take later on behalf of the victims, the world, their families, and communities, and then to have the energy and where-with-all to carry them out. The goal of turning away is not simply to distract your self but actually to do the following.

Find ways to soothe your self. We live in a culture that tells us that being well informed is better than being grounded; that being stimulated (up to date, current on all information) is the equivalent of being calmed). This is not true. Everyone of us needs to make personal deposits in the self care center of our being in order to afford the withdrawals of energy, emotion, time, and attention that the world and its news offers. It is crucial that we find ways not just of distracting ourselves on days like today (think Pinterest, Netflix, video games, etc) but also that we find ways to specifically and deeply soothe ourselves. For some of us that may a good hard run and for others it may be a long slow walk. Tea that tastes and smells, drunk slowly, may hit the spot. A bath may work for one of us while throwing ice cubes at the fence as hard as we can might fill the ticket for another. Screaming in the car, crying in the shower, or playing basketball until you can’t move are all options. So are knitting, breathing deeply, and finding beauty somewhere reliable. Whatever you do, let your mind, body, and heart have some space to release and to receive. You can most effectively help the world from a place of centeredness, find it. Once you've found the ways of best truly soothing your self, consider offering to help others find their unique paths to actual self soothing.

Talk to someone. If you feel as though you can’t bear the sadness or as though the anger may cause you (or someone you are near), harm, reach out to someone who can help you find the center referenced above. While it may feel good to rant with others who are angry or commiserate with those who are sad, make sure you also find someone who can help you process through your emotions to a place where life feels manageable and you are able to take media breaks, feel all the feels, and also stay in your current life. Therapists, coaches, loving community members, clergy, and even hotlines are great places. Facebook may not be your best friend in this area.

Get active. I mean this figuratively and literally for today and tomorrow and next week. Part of turning away from screens is getting your body moving. Take a walk, encounter someone (even if it’s the barista or check out person at Target), jump rope, blow bubbles (makes you breathe deeply), do some stretching, or play catch. Keep doing this until you feel ready to get active in a way that uses your experience today to make change that will prevent further loss of life. I, personally, do this through volunteer work with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety. I’d love to have you join me. There are chapters all around the country. Find them.

It's easy to say "I'll do something about this" on a day where the feelings and shock are kicking us into high gear. It's much harder to maintain this drive to become active in meaningful ways. If you feel called to this kind of action today, make a note in your calendar a month from today to follow up on this urge. Being active between now and the next crisis will help you  and help the world.

Talk to children. The first piece I ever wrote about talking to children about violence was on 9/11. My kids were in elementary school and, after helping their teachers settle their classrooms, I came home and wrote about protecting children from disturbing images on t.v., about giving them opportunities to talk, and to, as Mr. Rogers instructs, direct their attention to the helpers in situations such as this. It pains me to think of how many posts I’ve written since then about how to help children cope with the kinds of violence that are, sadly, growing less uncommon.  Basically, it boils down to the same things. Protect them from images as much as you can. Provide places of screen free comfort in your home (don’t have the news on and, some of the time, don’t check social media). Ask them how they are feeling, what they’ve heard, and what they are afraid or curious about. Yeah them to self soothe. Don’t make false promises but do talk about ways that they can feel safe and empowered. Talking about guns and safe gun storage can be a huge help here (Moms Demand Action’s Be Smart Program is fantastic). Inform them of what to do and how to respond in situations when they encounter guns, violence, or media content they know isn’t safe. Point them toward the helpers who emerge in times like this and lead by example in becoming one of those helpers by helping them actively get through this week and month and by honoring those lost in active ways.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I have had time to take this all in, to feel all the feels, to soothe a bit of the horrifically sharp edges that this day has offered. I’m sure you have plenty to say and feel and do today and beyond. May we all, in the midst of all the thoughts and feelings, news and developments,  work to create a more loving, less violent, and more deeply empathically connected world. To that end, please know that I am holding us all (including you…yes, YOU) in Light and Love and wishing you grace and peace as you move through the pain.