A Response to the Virginia Tech Shootings

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May 9, 2007 at 11:08 am  •  Posted in Grief And Loss by  •  0 Comments

By Carol A. Anderson, MSW, LMSW
 

Introduction
Responding to Excessive Public Displays of Violence
Assisting Survivors After a Traumatic Event
An Alternate Approach
Conclusion

 

Introduction

As a social worker working with hospice patients and families, I deal with much grief and loss on a daily basis. When I heard about the Virginia Tech shootings, my reaction was one of disbelief and sadness. I wondered, like so many others, why did this happen?

There is speculation that violence in television, movies and video games may have had an influence on the shooter’s thinking. Violent video games are extremely popular and give the impression that a violent death is acceptable, even desirable. For years now, movies and television have made violent death into a “part of a plot” which has desensitized the public to the reality of death.

Responding to Excessive Public Displays of Violence

One option as parents might be to begin limiting or putting an end to our children watching or playing violent shows and games. The public as a whole could also help by refusing to endorse or pay for movies or TV shows/video games with violent content.

Another option is making the mental health system in our country more accessible for everyone. Had help been more readily available, perhaps the shooter could have received the treatment he so obviously needed and the violence and death been avoided altogether. In addition, just as professionals in the human service field such as teachers, social workers, nurses, and doctors are mandated reporters for any potentially dangerous situation, perhaps every citizen could also take on this duty.

Assisting Survivors After a Traumatic Event

Even though the magnitude of this situation is not as large as 9/11, it certainly can be compared in terms of suddenness and violence. Dealing With the Impact of Trauma, an article by Jean Riethmayer describes the effects of trauma as threefold:

  1. the inability to find words to describe the trauma
  2. a sense of isolation, and
  3. a sense of helplessness

According to Riethmayer, in order to assist in the healing for the survivors of a traumatic event, counselors will need to assist “the client in breaking the silence by gently guiding the client in finding words to describe the actual experience, as well as express the terror, pain and sadness that accompanied the trauma”.

Riethmayer describes the counselor’s role as that of helping “to lessen the sense of isolation by joining the client in this emotional journey, and walking beside the client through the depths of the trauma work”. In an effort to ease the client’s sense of helplessness, a social worker can walk along side the client as he or she vents, expresses, describes his or her feelings and emotions regarding the traumatic event. Working through one’s emotions in this way can help survivors “emerge on the other side, ready to reach toward and fully grasp the future.”

An Alternate Approach

An alternative technique to assist survivors of traumatic experiences is described in an article by Patricia E. Hudson, Rituals and Creativity: Strategies For Victims of Terror. The author suggests that a ritual, service, or remembrance can be helpful to the survivors in honoring those who have died. She described many of the rituals that schools in the New York City area used after 9/11 such as asking students to assist fellow students’ families at the funerals or memorials of family members killed in 9/11.

Forming support groups with students and counselors and using creative arts to allow students to express their emotions and feelings were two other techniques she describes. Hudson states that many younger children wrote letters to fire departments who had lost members in the attack, and some children made baked goods for those families of the victims.

Conclusion

Regardless of the type of trauma one experiences, it is essential that the survivors be offered the opportunity to honor those they have lost and acknowledge their own grief and loss in ways that are meaningful to them. Sensitivity to different cultural traditions is essential in grief work. It is important to ask clients specifically how they honor their loved ones in their culture. As counselors and social workers, we can do our part to ask these questions, offer these opportunities, as well as continue to advocate for vigilance as a proactive responsibility of all citizens.

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