by Jessica Dancingheart
Life as the Boulder community knew it has changed. The recent shooting at King Soopers left 10 people dead, bystanders filled with trauma and survivors-guilt, the loved ones of shooting survivors in shock and grief, and the larger community filled with a spectrum of grief-related feelings. In a nutshell, we are a community that has experienced a significant loss of life, peace, and security.
As parents, we naturally want to protect and help our children in the aftermath of the South Boulder mass shooting. We want to help them cope with their losses and experiences. As the trite saying goes, we need to put on our proverbial oxygen mask first. In this instance, the oxygen mask is holding compassion towards ourselves and each other. Compassion is vital as we do not want to exacerbate the hurts by fixing and blaming one another when we need love and understanding.
We can extend compassion by acknowledging we are all working towards healing in our unique ways. We can offer greater grace to one another by understanding that our underlying needs are the same, even as we express our grief differently and are in different stages of grief. In a nutshell, we all want to make sense of this senseless act, honor the people and community we lost, restore “normalcy,” regain power in our world, and protect ourselves and our loved ones from further pain.
Rather than react to each other’s different stages and styles of grieving, I suggest that we co-create empathic spaces to “walk through” the grief. Doing so will most effectively land us on the other side— a peaceful space where we can once again participate fully in life while honoring our losses. Feeling the pain of our grief, instead of overriding it, will help us be more available for our children. It is no different than giving ourselves the care we need when we have injured a body part. Attention, time, and support go a long way.
Empathic spaces are ones in which we listen deeply to one another without judgment, correction, on-upping, problem-solving, lecturing, or shaming, blaming, and fixing each other. In those spaces, in each other’s words and actions, we recognize and acknowledge our universal human needs for safety, belonging, meaning, purpose, and connection to a comforting force that is bigger than ourselves.
To create empathic spaces, three steps are helpful. The first is to relax our nervous system. The second is to create the intention to connect as we related to one another. And the third is to understand that every action is in service of a universal human need. Even if we disagree with each other’s actions and word choices, we all benefit from recognizing our common humanity.
For those of us who are experiencing agitation, nervousness, poor sleep, changes in our appetite, and/or hypersensitivity, it helps to double down on physical care - engaging in good sleep hygiene, eating nutritious foods, exercising, having rhythmic activities, creating a routine, and surrounding ourselves with loving and supportive people. When those are not enough, and we notice that we are “crawling out of our skins” with agitation, stress, and anxiety, we can invoke our senses as a way to calm ourselves down. We can do this by noticing sounds, smells, sensations, flavors, and the details of what we see—all while paying attention to our breath so it can be as deep as possible. Healing tears or sobs may flow as we release the tension in our bodies.
One way to ground into the intention to connect is to remember when you listened to somebody or were listened to with pure interest and no agenda. You likely felt magical shifts as the “weight of the world” was lifted, and you gained clarity and opened to possibilities. Try to recreate that intention and take it into any connections you have.
To connect to universal human needs, it helps to remember that to thrive, we all need food, shelter, physical and emotional safety, belonging, mastery, purpose, and rituals that support our spirits. There are as many ways to meet those needs as there are people. Yet, at the core, they are universal.
As a guide to connect to needs, it helps to know how the different grief stages all serve a powerful purpose. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We don’t always go through them linearly. Denial helps us titrate our feelings - dealing with what we can as we can. My favorite description of denial is that it is the shock absorber to the soul. For those of us in denial, a silent or spoken reflection on the overwhelming depth of pain and sorrow underlying our strong need for physical and emotional safety, support, care, and/or to make sense of the world would go further than a rational argument pointing to “reality.”
Anger arises when there is great fear and hurt. Instead of telling ourselves and each other to calm down, it may be helpful to acknowledge that we are scared and hurting and want to restore predictability, security, and a sense of normalcy.
Bargaining helps us regain a sense of power in our world. We bargain when we feel powerless after the rug was pulled from under us because we need to empower ourselves. The way we bargain does not have to be rational, as long as it empowers us to regain a sense of control. As a side note, those who can regain their autonomy and power during or after a tragedy don’t live with PTSD symptoms. So, finding a way to restore power is critical.
Depression happens when we are finally able to feel our loss. It reflects a need for honoring the people and routines we lost. Talking people out of depression rarely works. Paradoxically, deeply listening helps relieve the pain. When we are in this state, we need extra tenderness, care, and attention, almost as tender as we would extend to an infant.
Acceptance reflects the moment when we say we are ready to honor the people and community we lost. Acceptance comes with a strong need to make meaning. Often, we see people engaging in projects to honor the people lost. The formation of causes, memorials, art, etc., coming out of acceptance has a different energy than anger-motivated actions do. Honoring actions coming out of acceptance are generally constructive rather than destructive.
In sum, I offer that we show compassion towards ourselves and each other as a community—taking extra time to take care of our physical, social, and emotional needs as we heal from a huge trauma. This will help our children directly and indirectly. They will learn how to go through grief. They will also have better-resourced parents who can support them in their grief processes.
As always, please reach out with any questions or comments. As well as creating empathic spaces to process the grief, you may want to reach out to crisis centers, hotlines, therapists, or a coach such as myself.