In light of last Friday’s mass shooting incident I decided to share some thoughts and suggested readings on how to deal with the emotional pain we may feel as a result of the shooting, but also might be experiencing due to other life events.
The mass shooting incident is jarring on many levels. It is painful to think about the families who lost their children. Each day’s news of another child’s funeral has been a steady reminder. In fact it is hard to follow the news. It is hard to think about young children being robbed of their chance to go through life and it is sad to think about the parents who will be reminded of their loss at every missed milestone. The incident also stirs issues of personal safety. When and where will the next mass shooting occur? Are we safe? Are our children safe? Guns are available everywhere. Maybe the next mass shooting won’t be a mass shooting, but instead will be a drive by shooting that hits innocent bystanders? Also, who will be the next murderers? Are they among us? Perhaps even one of our children? Can we recognize them? Can they be helped? It is hard to face the realities of death and violence. Initially, many people felt horror and outrage. Thoughts about the politics around gun control and mental health were stirred for most of us. These are important issues to focus on, but what happens when that anger wears off – or is some of the anger even a defense against the feelings of sadness and fear?
So how can we emotionally deal with an event like this? First, it seems important to let the sorrow sink in. All too quickly we want to avoid the sad feelings and move on. For some of us this is a necessary defense mechanism. Personal traumatic events of the past get triggered and can lead to flashbacks and an overwhelming sense of fear. Yet, the problem is that if we move on too quickly we risk feeling down and dulled. Depressed feelings can set in and life may seem hopeless and negative. We all tend to have mechanisms to help numb us. It might be food, TV, video games or the internet. For others, it might be winding down with alcohol. For others, heavier drugs are needed to manage the feelings that something like this can stir up.
It is possible for many people to allow the sorrow to sink in through religion and spirituality, although incidents like the Sandy Hook shooting also turn some people away from their faith because it is hard to understand why God would let something like this happen. For others, close friendships, family relationships, and other support systems help them sit with the sadness.
A friend of mine recently introduced me to Darlene Cohen’s work. Darlene Cohen was an author, a Zen Buddhist, who had originally been trained as a Massage Therapist. Her writing was very much influenced by her physical suffering due to Rheumatoid Arthritis. Though her thinking originated from the experience of physical suffering, she expanded her thinking to include emotional pain as well. In her Shambhala article “Finding Joy Amid the Pain” she shares some of her ideas on dealing with pain. She very much encourages her readers to acknowledge the pain without making it the main focus of your attention. Instead she urges you to ‘enrich your life exponentially’. What does she mean by that? She means living a meaningful life so that the pain can’t come to dominate it. At the same time, she warns us not to yearn for pleasure too much as it makes us want more pleasure and can lead us not being in the moment. This cycle in turn can create more suffering. Her ultimate recommendation is, rather than avoiding pain and clinging to pleasure, to be more of a curious observer of your own emotional states. The irony is that as we release the need to cling to pleasure and simply remain in the here and now, we ultimately experience a contentment that is a more fulfilling kind of pleasure.
It is interesting how grief and joy seem to be linked in Brené Brown’s research. Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Texas in Houston, who studies vulnerability and its relationship to fear, grief, and disappointment as well as love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity. In “Daring Greatly” (a book that I hope to review in greater detail in the future) Brown shares three lessons she learned about joy while conducting research with people who had experienced profound loss or trauma. Learning from them might help us with direction and hope. I quote:
- Joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Scarcity culture may keep us afraid of living small, ordinary lives, but when you talk to people who have survived great losses, it is clear that joy is not a constant. Without exception, all the participants who spoke to me about their losses, and what they missed the most, spoke about ordinary moments. “If I could come downstairs and see my husband sitting at the table and cursing at the newspaper…” “If I could hear my son giggling in the backyard…””My mom sent me the craziest texts – she never knew how to work her phone. I’d give anything to get one of those texts right now.”
- Be grateful for what you have. When I asked people who had survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted – celebrate it. Don’t apologize for what you have. Be grateful for it and share your gratitude with others. Are your parents healthy? Be thrilled. Let them know how much they mean to you. When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.
- Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen – and they do happen – we are stronger.
Here again is a message that we need to enjoy the here and now rather than yearn for what is not. So embrace your loved ones and soak in their presence. Reach out to those you love and care for. Right now is the moment that is most valuable in your life.