Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

Coping with the Tragic News of the Colorado Theater Massacre

How to walk that fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed.

Last month I wrote “Turn off the news and enjoy your summer.” Oh the irony, given yesterday’s tragedy, which happened nearby and is making headlines across the nation.

For us, it hit way too close for comfort. My daughter and two of her cousins, together for a fortnight of family reunion, were among the multitudes of teens and young adults who flocked to the opening of Dark Knight in Denver Metro area theaters. Thankfully, our children were elsewhere and came home safely before we were given cause to worry about them.

Yesterday morning, my dad heard about it on the radio and shared the scant details with us, and today we all read the newspaper reports to varying degrees. Being informed has addressed our need to process what went down, answer questions of how this could happen, be part of a caring community, and get reassurance that survivors and loved ones are getting support and counseling. Some of us sought out details; some wanted the big picture; others chose to stay out of the loop. As a family, we discussed our support for gun control--perhaps people, not guns, do kill people, but only people with guns can kill lots of people within seconds.

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We also continue to root for affordable, universal mental health care and erasing the stigma of seeking help for ourselves and our children. We are heartened by the show of community solidarity and hope that those who feel isolated can feel like they are a part of the social fabric by simply caring. And events like this can help us stop and think about what's really important and perhaps reach out with simple acts of kindness to those in need. We reaffirmed our belief that the world is mostly a safe place, and we soothed our anxieties with the understanding that the chances are astronomically miniscule that our children will be murdered in a future massacre. Yes, as long as guns and explosives are manufactured, there is a chance my child could be next, but statistically, it remains an extremely rare way to die. And I take comfort in that, while my heart goes out to the unspeakable grief that others are feeling now.

And then we decided to “turn off the news.”  

Yes, this story is particularly riveting. It taps into our worst nightmares, with its mythic themes and terrifying features. We want to master our fears, thwart evil, and practice escape plans in our minds. We want to know how to identify and stop killers before they strike. But even as my dad tuned into the McNeil/Lehrer Report, I’m thinking I don’t need to immerse myself in the gory details gleaned from reporters’ interviews with those in the doomed theater. There were questions from the anchor to various reporters on the scene, like, “Can you relay survivors’ descriptions of the chaos and how they escaped?” and “Did you talk to anyone whose friend or family member died?” And I’m reminded of 9/11, people glued to their television sets, drowning in an infinite video loop of towers collapsing and descriptions of the trauma experienced firsthand. Why do we insist on experiencing such trauma secondhand?

I too was glued to the TV on that September day, but after a couple hours, I realized that I was only deepening my own trauma and I decided to carry on with my day, which included photographing a friend and her newborn. What a contrast that was, welcoming new life as the country grieved for the terrible, unspeakable loss of so many lives. But that gig also reminded me that many realities coexist. Yes, there is tragedy and despair, but simultaneously, there is also plenty of love and happiness in this world.

It’s normal to feel helpless in the face of such a senseless tragedy. There’s probably nothing any one of us could have done to prevent this person from going on this rampage. But you still hold the power to make the world a better place with every move you make. Be a person who supports evidence-based social policy, education, and health care systems that address the underlying issues that can lead to such tragedies. Promote tolerance, respect, and compassionate solutions. Take a genuine interest in those around you. Be a part of the village that it takes to raise every child.

And sure, gather the news and information you need to be a reasonably informed, responsible, thoughtful member of your community. But most importantly, tend to your own mental health. If you are sensitive to others’ suffering, if anxiety or depression is encroaching, or if you find yourself feeling distressed about public policy or discouraged about the future of the human race, give yourself a break. At some point, turn away from the dark and embrace the light. Tune out and turn off the bad news and seek out the good-- including upcoming stories about the inspiring resilience of the survivors and victims’ families as well as the outpouring of support. We will prevail.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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