It’s been such a long two weeks, hasn’t it? Parkland, Florida. A university yesterday. Families. Domestic violence. Two more schools after Parkland. Scenes of Pulse survivors helping Parkland survivors along with Columbine survivors and Sandy Hook parents and comfort dogs. As a therapist, have you been hit with the impact of all of this?
I’m from Florida. It’s my second home, and where I earned my MSW. I’ll be there in three weeks. I live near San Bernardino, and Las Vegas. We’ve worked with those survivors in our office. Some have come back this last week or two- there are to many memories bubbling up as yet another round of ugly murders hits the news, and our collective hearts. They aren’t sleeping again, if they ever did get back to a regular sleep cycle. They are jumpy, and sad, and tired, and weepy.
I see kids, as well. My littles have come in afraid of classroom windows, and want their light up shoes replaced with dark tennies- so bad guys can’t see them in closets hiding with teachers after active shooter drills. They have scenarios in their heads about running to a gym where there are solid walls or getting to safety from a playground. Teachers come in angry about being told that they should be armed, and afraid for their kids- not themselves- because plans being made are not enough to make it truly safe. Then they hear themselves and are angry that we are even having this conversation. They want to go back to teaching, not watching for bad guys with guns and trying to do testing at the same time. Those with trauma histories are especially rattled.
It’s not about politics- it’s about fear, and safety, and anger that we are facing this moment. It’s about littles who should never have to think about their shoes making them a target, and math classes that should be feared for algebra exams, not windows where students can be seen by a man with a gun.
What does it mean for all of us as therapists? What do we do to take care of them? To address the fears that we can no longer really minimize, but we know are also probably not realistic for most places? To support those with trauma histories as they face a daily onslaught of news reports that replay the last three and showing the newest?
I am a social worker, through and through. Empowerment is part of our nature, and our ethics. It’s also how those kids in Florida are coping and making such a difference right now. Who would have thought a bunch of teens in this generation would organize a march on Washington, news shows, and still make it to class? They have taught us a collective lesson, haven’t they? They have empowered each other and gathered power from those who have stood in their place before. They are speaking to power and making it theirs. And they seem to be winning in a way that multiple generations of adults have not been able to.
How does that help? In my work with teens, they now have the best example ever of teens making a difference. I’ve seen kids with trauma histories taking those lessons and applying it in their own schools, immediately. Dance classes are becoming performances about being a teen today. History classes are looking at the Constitution and law process in a new way that means something immediate and important. Seniors are rethinking college majors and career paths to make a difference. Yes, there is collective grief, and trauma work to recover. But there is a new kind of reaction available now- and we can help those kids build on what they are seeing in their peers.
In our work with littles, we have work to do with parents. They know better than to listen to news, and not to discuss the events occurring with them listening. That does not mean they are able, in their own stressed moments, to monitor themselves effectively without reminders and tips. It does not mean they have set their phones to not show news feeds the littles can see in the car and on the kitchen table. Parents are fearful- the statistical chance of their child being a target are slim. The reality, however, is that we can no longer tell them that church, the mall, school, concerts, and movies are safe. We simply can’t. What we can do is help them understand the impact that any fear they show to their littles will be absorbed, and shared. It will not help the littles- it will make it harder for them, and less likely to tell their parents about their own fears, because they will try not to stress their parents with their fears. It becomes a cycle that helps nobody. Littles need concrete safety planning, a safe space to share their fears, and permission to share their worries with the big people in their lives.
And then there is us- the therapists who also watch news, may have kids or grands, and absorb the trauma and secondary trauma of our clients all day long. We also have our own responses, and we can’t share them with clients, nor can we share clients’ responses at home. We pretty much have each other. That’s our strength if we find each other, and a safe place to share. I hope you have already, but I am aware that some of you have not. I’ve met a fair number of fairly isolated therapists who are solo practitioners and who do not have a huge amount of grief training. This is grief plus trauma plus collective trauma plus some post-election stuff added in. That is a lot to manage alone. Let me be the first to suggest that you find some safe space online in a closed and locked down group, or email, or in small groups for consult, or even for sharing with your fellow therapists. You know the laws and ethics- don’t push boundaries but do take care of you by seeking out folks who can hear you and provide mutual support and feedback.
This is not going to be the last one, folks. We know that. Things may be changing, but the situation is still with us. There will be more mass casualties. Let’s acknowledge the hope that is there, but the losses that continue to mount, and let’s support each other as we face this
There is always the need to carry on.
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas