Monday, December 14, 2015

Dear Survivors: How can we help you?

Left: Ryan on 12/13/2012. Right: Dylan Hockley.
Dylan could have been my baby.

Dylan Hockley was an autistic 6-year-old, navigating first grade in Newtown CT with the help of his one-on-one special ed teacher. When the gunman started firing at the 6- and 7-year-olds in the class, Dylan's para wrapped her own body around him to shield him from the bullets. They died holding each other.

Half an hour away, my baby sat in his second grade classroom working one-on-one with Mrs. Wilson. After an uneventful day at school, he said goodbye to Mrs. Wilson and came home on the short bus.

He didn't understand why I hugged him so tightly. He told me to let go of him; I didn't.

This morning my baby got on the short bus to go to school, where he is now sitting in his fifth grade classroom working one-on-one with Mrs. Wilson. And most likely at the end of the day he will say goodbye to Mrs. Wilson and come home on the short bus.

But we all know there's always a possibility he won't. Or that he will come home and I will not be here to meet him because I was going about my life and some disturbed individual decided to do something deranged.

His school runs Code Drills, the modern equivalent of Duck and Cover Drills, so the children and their teachers can practice hiding from an "active shooter situation." Americans can purchase bulletproof backpacks, to shield their children from the seemingly-inevitable day they will have to face a crazed gunman. As The Onion said so eloquently, fuck everything.  I don't want to live in a country where we expect kids to be shot in their schools.

The collective horror of all of these incidents is terrible enough, but to me what's worse is the thousands of individual lives that are changed forever the instant the first shot is fired - the instant in which they become survivors.

In addition to the usual debates about gun control and the mental health of the murderers, I'd like to take a moment to think about what we can do to support the survivors of these traumatizing events our country seems incapable of preventing.

I have a friend who survived the Simon's Rock massacre on 12/14/1992. Twenty three years later, that day still colors everything in her life. Everything. She wrote a book about her experience as a survivor - memory loss, panic attacks, all the what-ifs - that I think should be required reading for anyone before they're allowed to open their mouths about mass murders.

Every child at a school where one of these insane shootings takes place, every teacher, every first responder, each of them will need a lifetime to process the grizzly details and incorporate them into their own personal narrative. Each of them will carry the event around with them forever, sometimes neatly tucked away, sometimes raw and oozing all over their face. Each will deal with the trauma in their own way - they may see the dead in their sleep, cower from fireworks, become politically active, retreat into themselves. Maybe some of them will grow up and see no alternative but to traumatize someone else so that they will not feel so alone in their grief.

A few months ago I was hiking in the woods behind a local nature center that sits adjacent to both an elementary school and a shooting range. When I got to a spot in the woods where I could hear both gunfire and the happy sounds of outdoor recess, I had a full panic attack. As the sounds blended in my head, the happy shrieks taking on a tone of terror, my heart crawled into my stomach, vomit burned the back of my throat, and I had to get out of there, running over fallen branches and dodging thorny vines. My startle reflex was heightened for days after.

That was my reaction, and I have never been present at a murder. I can only imagine how much more overwhelming a reaction would be triggered for someone who has actually had to hide behind their bulletproof backpack.

So, survivors: what do you need from the rest of us?

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Keep it civil, people.