7 Years After Sandy Hook: Coping With Difficult Milestones
Steps to help survivors cope with challenging anniversaries.
Posted Dec 16, 2019
It’s been seven years since the devastating and horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut. I can still remember exactly where I was the moment I heard the news and then watching with horror, along with the rest of America, as the lives of innocent children were cut short by gun violence.
Today, along with many others in our nation, my heart cries out for the families and loved ones of all those impacted by that deadly shooting. My attention and prayers continually turn to these gun violence survivors, particularly as we get deeper into the holiday season, which can make the absence of loved ones even more obvious.
As someone who studies mass disasters and has survived one (Hurricane Katrina), I understand how difficult milestones like this seven-year mark can trigger emotional distress and reopen what we thought were healing wounds. It’s common for these year marks to cause unwanted memories and emotional distress among those affected—whether directly or indirectly. In fact, several studies have shown that traumatic anniversaries are extremely difficult for those impacted by mass and personal disasters alike. If you are struggling today with emotional scars, here are some steps you can take to help you cope with challenging anniversaries.
Seek Social Support
Study after study shows that social support is one of the biggest predictors of resilience after trauma. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones and friends for extra support around difficult days. This doesn’t mean you have to rehash or relive the events all over again. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing. If you don’t want to talk about things, that’s OK. Just spending time and being with others can be healing in and of itself.
You might also look to see if there are public gatherings or official ceremonies taking place. Expressions of public gatherings can be powerful and healing sources of memorial and remembrance. Engaging in community activities can help you remember that you are not alone.
Engage in the Familiar
Troubling year marks can shake our sense of “normalcy” and make a person feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster. Because anniversaries can disrupt your daily life, trying to keep a routine can be helpful. That is, try and create some space in your day or days surrounding the anniversary for the familiar. Carving out calm amidst what can feel like chaos can help buffer against the roller-coaster effect. Seeking out familiar places, schedules, and people can be soothing and comforting.
Honor Your Story
Your story about you is important. We are hardwired for story. We even live in a story. Journalist Michele Weldon notes, “We all lead lives worthy of preservation. Our stories need to be told, if to no one else, then only to ourselves…”
You may feel tempted to try and avoid the difficult parts of your life story, such as traumatic anniversaries. However, I would encourage you to look for ways to remember and honor your whole story. It’s important to learn how to preserve your entire life experience, including the ups and the downs. There is no one “right” way to honor your story in its entirety. This is not something to be rushed, and it takes time. Be patient with yourself and the recovery process.
Limit Media Exposure
It’s OK to be informed and follow media stories around challenging year marks. Be aware that too much media exposure can increase your distress, though. Seeing images that remind you of what happened over and over again can trigger strong, negative emotional reactions if you aren’t careful.
Maybe you have some unanswered questions lingering from what you went through and are hoping the news will help you fill in the gaps. You are probably better off talking with a close friend or others close to what happened for accurate information over trying to find closure in the news. In addition to hopefully getting more information, you’ll also be getting that ever so important social support.
Do Something for Someone Else
Helping others is good for fostering resilience. Research has found that assisting someone else in need is an effective way of finding meaning and purpose in your own struggle. Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren, a social psychologist at Hope College, notes that helping others fosters a sense of meaning, purpose, and even feelings of happiness.
Similarly, Santa Clara University clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas Plante writes, "In a nutshell, if you want to cope better with stress, serve others. Stress management and resilience can be enhanced by connecting with others in need."
Find Comfort in Your Beliefs
Seeking refuge in your beliefs can help you weather life’s storms. Several studies have found that faith can help provide a significant buffer against common negative psychological consequences following disasters and trauma. Deepening your connection with the sacred can help you find comfort and ease fears about living in a disaster-filled word. For example, in a survey of nearly 200 Hurricane Katrina survivors, religious comfort was associated with positive outcomes, while religious strain was associated with more negative outcomes.
Get Professional Help if Needed
Here are a few signs that you would benefit from additional professional support: You can’t shake the distressing thoughts and emotions brought back by the year mark. The distress triggered by the year mark starts to interfere with your everyday life. If you notice others are encouraging you to seek professional help, this too may be a good indicator that you should reach out to a professional. Lastly, if you find yourself thinking about harming yourself or someone else, then call a mental health professional or 911 right away.
Jamie Aten is a spokesperson for Prayers & Action, a coalition of faith leaders, churches and organization dedicated to ending gun violence through prayers and action.