Life after mass shootings: How to help others cope

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The trauma from the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas stretches far beyond the borders of both cities.

“Today, everyone feels defined by this incident. Even though there’s much, much more to those communities, right now, they feel they are only a killing field,” explained Bob Vandepol of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

HOW TO SUPPORT SURVIVORS

Vandepol says people can show their support for those traumatized by the mass killings by acknowledging the seriousness of what happened.

“The first thing you need to do is show up. We tend to duck these situations, which adds one tragedy to another. So show up,” he said.

After that, Vandepol says people need to show a rare combination of strength and compassion to survivors.

“They need somebody to come alongside them where they know this person is tough enough to handle what I need to share with them. And they need to know that you have an emotional investment in them.”

Vandepol says the best supporters don’t minimize what a survivor has been through.

“Acknowledge ‘I’m so sorry what you went through and how it’s impacting you,’” he said.

Listening and letting them talk is also crucial.

“There are no magic words that immediately alleviate all human suffering. And usually helpers make the mistake of trying to share platitudes or to talk or to be really wise. The best thing we can do is shut up and listen and let that person pour out what they want at their pace,” explained Vandepol.

The trauma doesn’t end as soon as coverage of the shooting stops. Vandepol says supporters need to be there for the long-run, to help survivors move forward.

And the tone you take matters.

“Produce calm. Panic and rage are contagious. So is calm. They need us to be the source of that,” Vandepol added.

HELPING KIDS COPE WITH VIOLENCE

Vandepol said violent acts like these can also create secondary trauma, just from watching video of what happened. He says children are especially susceptible.

“They don’t understand. They’re lousy at geography so they think El Paso and Dayton are right in their backyard. And every time that they’ve gone to Walmart, it’s been the smiling, friendly person at the front door who greets them and helps them to feel safe.”

His advice to parents and caregivers? Control how much a child sees and hears about the shootings.

“They don’t have to know everything about it, answer their questions and be available for them, too,” he said.

And when it comes to kids, reassurance goes a long way.

“But the biggest thing is let them know that you will do everything you can to keep them safe, and some empathy for those who were impacted by these events,” said Vandepol.

For more information about the services and support provided by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, visit the organization’s website or call 866.852.4001.

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