When communities continue to face heartbreaking and senseless tragedies across the country, we can feel helpless. And yet, we can learn from the brave communities who have faithfully and thoughtfully walked through their own disasters.
This article was originally published on Religious News Service on February 18, 2019.
WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — Saturday night, the day after the shooting at a factory that killed five people, I was asked to offer the closing prayer at a church vigil in North Aurora and provide trauma care after the service.
As the service came toward a close, the teaching pastor invited me up to speak as the attendees finished praying out loud with one another in pairs and small groups. Though I could not make out the muffled words I overheard being spoken as I walked to the stage, I heard both grief and hope in their voices.
I was deeply moved by the grace and compassion I witnessed among those who had gathered to mourn, offer support, seek meaning and worship together.
I’ve spent my career studying disasters like mass shootings; I’m also a Hurricane Katrina and stage IV cancer survivor. Through these experiences I’ve learned that many faith traditions have a wellspring of helpful teachings on understanding and responding to human suffering. In fact, several of the world’s monotheistic faiths teach that those who suffer (e.g., mourn, struggle, are poor in spirit, are persecuted) are blessed.
Unfortunately, people of faith sometimes latch onto ideas about what the “blessing” of adversity looks like — ideas that are not just uninformed, but potentially hurtful to those facing hardships.
It’s natural and beneficial to want to move toward growth in times of suffering like the Aurora mass shooting. But science tells us that those blessings are often different from the ones people expect.
When survivors anticipate that tragedy will lead to significant growth, they may feel guilt, shame, and self-doubt if that growth doesn’t happen. Conversely, when their loved ones or community expect it of them, they may be subject to victim blaming, judgment or even have their faith called into question.
University of Minnesota professor Patricia Frazier and colleagues have studied this difference between perceived growth (how we see our situation) and actual growth (how our situation really is). Her research looks at the way trauma survivors view their growth in retrospect and compares that to how they reported growth when they were going through it. In one 2009 study, she found that those who experienced significant distress following a trauma later overestimated the growth that followed.
Their findings suggest that seeing ourselves as having grown in the midst of adversity may be one of the ways we cope with suffering. This may be particularly true when extreme situations overwhelm our capacity for resilience; holding onto the hope that something good can come out of a bad situation may serve as a source of strength or solace that allows us to endure hardships.
At the same time, perceiving growth where there isn’t any may cause harm if left unchecked. Consider the husband who clings to a narrative of growth instead of facing the reality that his unaddressed pain and blind spots are sabotaging his relationships with his wife and children. By hiding from the harsher reality, he may refuse to acknowledge that he still needs to grow, and his family relationships suffer even more.
When tragedy strikes, it can overwhelm our mind’s natural ability to make sense of suffering. It can turn our view of the world upside down and leave us with more questions than answers. Incorporating disruptive life events into our worldview is rarely easy or quick. Cancer survivor studies reveal, for instance, that the ability to make meaning of suffering typically takes numerous intentional, sustained attempts over a prolonged period of time.
Yet many people hold onto the notion that wisdom is automatically and spontaneously imparted by suffering. We as a culture believe that we are resilient to major life stressors and will come out on the other side stronger than before (i.e., “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”).
Don’t get me wrong. I believe growth is possible from adversity, and for some even quickly and effortlessly.
But according to Arizona State University researchers Frank Infurna and Suniya Luthar, natural resilience to life-altering events (e.g., spousal loss) may be less common than most assume. Using a longitudinal dataset dating back to the early 1980s, they found that participants who experienced a significant life stressor experienced sharp declines in well-being that sometimes persisted for years.
One of the reasons it’s so hard for people to bounce back from adversity is what researchers refer to as a loss spiral, where an initial loss triggers suffering, suffering then leads to additional losses, continuing in a downward cycle. Numerous studies have shown that these sorts of losses are often more influential on a person’s life than possible gains that might be garnered from surviving a trauma.
Growth doesn’t just cancel out all the struggles of suffering. It would be nice if growth were somehow guaranteed, if it always came as a wonderful gift that somehow over time compensated for suffering. But sometimes growth comes at devastating and painstaking costs, and sometimes not at all.
The blessing of suffering isn’t growth. It’s being reminded that our lives have meaning and that we aren’t alone in our hurts — whether we grow or not.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today, on February 16, 2019.
The mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois on Friday claimed the lives of 5 Henry Pratt Co. employees and injured 5 police officers and 1 staff person.
What survivors need most right now is for others to help them know that they are not alone and that there are people in their life that they can turn to for help—being a friend is one of the best ways you can help.
How to Provide Social Support
Research has shown that seeking social support in the aftermath of mass shooting is one of the best things people can do to help cope with and reduce trauma.
Keep in mind that people vary in how much social support they feel that they need. For example, some people need a lot of support from lots of people. Others need a lot of support from only a few deep relationships. Still others do not seem to need much social support at all. In the same way, people vary in how they feel socially supported. Some people feel supported when others listen to them compassionately. Others feel supported when their loved ones help them out or give them advice.
Following are some ways to encourage social support:
Listen by being present and don't push survivors to share before they are ready.
Provide accurate information and encourage survivors to limit media exposure, which can trigger anxiety and more struggles if left unchecked.
Help survivors understand how the shooting has affected their relationships and social support network.
Assist survivors in articulating what level and type of support they need right now.
Encourage them to ask for the help they need.
Strategize with them about how to overcome any actual or perceived barriers to them getting the support they need from others.
Support survivors in connecting with existing and potential sources of social support.
Let survivors know that it is okay to ask for help and support from others, that it is a sign of strength not weakness to ask for assistance.
Encourage survivors to participate in community events and gatherings as another way of connecting with others.
Ways to help support those impacted include meeting survivors’ basic needs, listening, being present, giving accurate information, and referring for professional help when needed.
Gather in community and expressions of public grief and faith like memorials which can also help foster connection and hope.
How to Refer for Additional Support
It is important that you recognize when additional follow-up services from a licensed mental health professional might be needed after a mass shooting. Signs include intense stress symptoms that don’t seem go away and/or interfere with everyday life, self-medicating with alcohol or substances, and thoughts of suicide.
If a referral to a professional mental health professional is needed, start by reminding your loved one that you care about him or her. Share with them a few specific reasons why you think they might need to talk to a licensed mental health professional. If there is the possibility that your loved one might be an immediate danger to self or others, you need to make a referral right away, independent of their consent. That is, you need to proactively get in touch with a licensed mental health professional, proper authorities (e.g., police), or call 911.