Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

What were they thinking?
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

Shock, horror, fear, helplessness, disbelief, pandemonium, confusion, terror, anger, and vulnerability, all are normal responses to sudden, unpredictable, shots fired in a public place. When violence breaks out during a routine passage thru airport security, or in any public place: pandemonium and chaos are sure to erupt. It is so incomprehensible that we have difficulty processing it. “Surely this can’t be happening! Our minds rebel at what is too terrible, too horrible that it must not be possible. It becomes a surreal event which only afterwards that we feel its impact. These acts of “madness” leave us feeling outraged, shaken, and violated. How can one human being walk into a public place, pull out a deadly weapon and begin killing unsuspecting, innocent people? What kind of human being does this? What was he thinking?

The short answer is, he wasn’t thinking in any way that could be construed as normal. The consequences of this and other incidents have created a trauma epidemic in which thousands of individuals have been left with the residual effects of shock, horror and terror having either lost a loved one or actually suffering traumatic injury because of the violence.

This cascade of violence has traumatized us as a nation. There have been so many of these violent incidents which have scarred our public psyche. Recently I watched the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination and suddenly realized that television has universalized our experience of shock, grief, and communal suffering. We now vicariously participate in every act of violence and tragedy through this powerful medium.

Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Fort Collins, Virginia Tech, the Boston Marathon, the Washington Naval Base, and now LAX just to name a few that are indelibly embedded in our memory. We as witnesses become secondary victims.

Who are these people who perpetrate such vicious attacks in normally peaceful corners of America? Each time we watch as the authorities go through their proscribed investigations, they dig into the background, hold conferences, do post mortems to discover who, how, and why of another outbreak of violence, and then they express the proper assurances of safety. And of course always end with the bromide, “Our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies go out to all those affected by this cowardly act.” Then the media rush in to capitalize on the “tragedy.” Microphones in the faces of victims, tearful recounting of the tableau by “witnesses.” The entire drama kept alive as long as possible to make the headlines.

In the meantime, we try to make sense of the senseless, we search for understanding, and try and to find some meaning in these acts of incomprehensible violence. Families, neighbors, friends often describe the killers as quiet, loners. The Lax shooter was described “as a lost soul.” They say they are shocked and had no clue as to the violent rage apparently hidden beneath the persona of the perpetrator. Random acts of violence by a total stranger are one of the most traumatizing events we will ever experience. My compassion goes out to the family whose child was identified as the killer. They have a double stigma: they lose a son and he is deemed a murder.

These occurrences violate all of our commonly held assumptions about civil society: safety, justice, compassion, rationality, order, meaning, control and fairness. These shattered assumptions become part of the trauma aftermath. It is easy to vilify, to cast the perpetrators as other, to see them as Mad, Crazy, Alien, and somehow totally different from us. Yet, they aren’t, this is the part that is hard to comprehend, these shooters are tragically flawed human beings, who for many complicated reasons go wildly off track. It is easier in our shock and anger to write them off rather than to see them in their humanity that somehow got twisted, injured, alienated and confused.

Gradually as the investigation progresses the authorities begin to find patterns, red flags, indicators, things the perpetrators have in common. Often the profile indicates mental illness, a grudge, a troubled childhood, poor social skills, precipitating events, and access to weapons.
What are we to make of all this information? Does it lead us any closer to understanding why someone chooses a specific target, on a specific day, at a specific time to begin a killing spree?
After 10,000 pages the official findings of Sandy Hook found “no motive.” He killed his mother as his first victim, twenty children and finally himself. There might just be some clues there. Public officials vow to punish those who perform these “cowardly deeds” and bring them to justice if they have not already been killed. Memorial services are held, and life returns to what passes for normal. The victim’s family’s lives are shattered and the grief is deep and life transforming. Perhaps, the rest of us are also changed a bit as we are exposed in secondary ways as well. We feel a little less safe, trusting, and more vulnerable: changed in subtle degrees.

I have been studying and writing about trauma for over 40 years, primarily focusing on those who have suffered traumatic losses. In the past 10 years I worked with abused children and studied the effects of abuse and trauma on their lives. I have also been a therapist who has worked with a wide variety of individuals with “mental illness.” What I have learned is that there are no simple answers, and that the why of human behavior, what motivates people to do horrible things is complex and has multiple causes. Much of human behavior is a combination of genetic predisposition, early childhood developmental trauma, life altering events, stressors, and mental disorders. When we try to understand the mind of someone who creates horrible violence, we are dealing with the mysterious complexities of the mind.

First, what could possibly be going through someone’s mind that sets out on a mission, both homicidal and probably suicidal? It is hard to fathom, because it is so unthinkable and far from normal. We know from reports about other shooters that some were mentally ill. What does that mean? What form of mental illness? There are many different kinds, in fact there is a whole compendium published by the American Medical Association called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In order to simplify, generally, I think of these various disorders in three categories: Thought Disorders, Mood Disorders, and Behavior Disorders. So when I ask what were they thinking? I am considering someone who has a complex disorder. He, most are males, does not think rationally, his thoughts are often delusional, fixated on a distorted view of reality (though disorder) often paranoid, hearing voices, etc. This is someone suspected of being Schizophrenic or a variation of other psychotic disorders. But not all Schizophrenics are violent, so the perpetrator probably also has a problem with “affect regulation,” controlling feelings like rage and other ambivalent feelings which further distort his thinking. So his mind may be filled with a toxic mixture of rage, paranoid ideation about conspiracies, and an intense hatred that is focused on some perceived grievance. This may also be intensified by hearing voices and auditory hallucinations. There is little, if any logical thought or consideration of consequences, regard for the victims, (empathy) or the morality and consequences of the deed.

Paradoxically they are often reported to appear totally calm: this is because they are Dissociated from their emotions. Dissociation is a symptom of trauma where the individual been exposed to overwhelming terror that cannot be assimilated consciously. Hence they are totally out of touch with their inner reality. The only relevant questions are how did they get this way and how can we prevent more violence?

These individuals usually were abused as children and lack social skills (isolated) and failed to develop empathy through secure attachment. They typically have lived under conditions of continual exposure to threat. They view the world as typically hostile and threatening. These individuals are particularly prone to triggers such as bullying, humiliation, and other social insults. When you add the buildup of toxic life stress, a precipitating stressor (trigger) and access to a weapon all that is left is target selection. This usually is tied into the individual’s history in terms of why a particular target is selected. It can be a grudge, a particular class of individuals, or they can be tied into a particularly virulent political or religious cult. All of this results in terribly flawed reality testing, poor judgment, poor impulse control and the unleashing of violent rage.

Violence can be attributed to many factors, viewed violence, poverty, and mental illness, the breakdown of the family, child abuse, lack of community, and the stress of urban living. These certainly are contributory to the wear and tear we all feel in conducting our lives. But random acts of violence and rage are more than the sum of these explanations. They are a world apart from normal. As abhorrent as it is, paradoxically we seem to have a fascination for violence, given our penchant for violent super heroes, violent video games, violent sports, violent movies, violent TV programs, loud and explosive car chases and creepy villains. One wonders about this social phenomenon as to whether it is cause or effect.

The motivation of why humans kill total strangers, or people they love is a deep mystery buried in the twisted unconscious minds of the perpetrators. My experience has been that once you learn the person’s whole story, the behavior often makes (psychological) sense. But unfortunately it is often too late to prevent another tragedy.

These events leave us all feeling fearful, vulnerable, and bewildered by the events that seem to be happening with frightening regularity. In reaction to the feelings of terror and helplessness, the response is also predictable. When traumatized we seek immediately to regain control and reduce the fear of recurrence. The first recommendation is to “arm teachers,” give the TSA people guns. The premise being that if people had more guns there would be less violence. I have trouble following the logic of that line of thinking. The sad fact is that there is very little we can do to prevent one disturbed person with a weapon from killing at random moments of everyday life. It is terribly hard to feel safe in a large anonymous culture and to feel like we have any sort of control over our security.

In terms of prevention, we need to be more aware of those around us who we think we know, and we certainly need to take better care of our children because it is often the abused, humiliated, child who grows up to take vengeance on those who failed them. We can spend more money on our schools, we can work toward having more and better mental health programs, we can provide more programs which deal with poverty and perhaps revisit gun control legislation. The LAX shooter bought an assault rifle legally in California after the Governor vetoed a more restrictive program. Unfortunately complex problems require enlightened social policy: complex solutions intelligently implemented. Most of our responses are knee jerk, fear based reactions to the trauma. The solutions need to be a coordinated, functional, effective social policy based on good data. In other words a well reasoned, measured response. In the meantime, stay calm, carry on and care for the wounded and let’s work together for a more peaceful society. In terms of our collective trauma, we must grieve our losses, and be aware of those who may have been deeply scarred by each particular incident and support them as a community. I was deeply moved by the solemnity and majesty of the Kennedy funeral, in particular John John’s salute at the gravesite. That day I think we collectively mourned as a nation. The ritual and drama of the public display of restrained grief can be healing for all as an expression of our collective sorrow and common humanity in the midst of inexpressible tragedy.


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