Existential Psychology

Connecticut School Shooting Tragedy

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As the full impact of the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut starts to sink in we are faced with powerful emotions. Many of them seem to have nowhere to land, like feelings of helplessness and empathy for the families forced to endure this atrocity. We feel profound sadness and regret for young lives taken before becoming the people they were meant to be. And we feel rage. To ruminate on their innocence, on the feelings of protectiveness that most of us have towards children, and on the unfairness of these young souls being forced to suffer through terror and death feels like too much to bear. Confronted by malicious acts of a senseless nature our illusions of security and safety are shattered.

To compound matters, when we endure an experience that elicits grief, we are often flooded by painful feelings of loss in other areas of our lives that have not been fully worked through. It can feel like too much to handle. If we can say one thing for certain about life on this planet it is that life always strives to keep living, growing, and reproducing. It will go up against impossible odds and keep fighting for its survival no matter what. Life wants to be alive. Humans, like all life forms, share this intrinsic need to be alive, except in the pathological state of suicidal thought, and we have shown ourselves capable and willing to live under the most varied and sometimes horrifying conditions in order to survive.

Yet we are much different from every other life form. We can contemplate our past, think about human history and our place in it, and consider the origins of the universe. We can plan for and imagine the future. We can turn these imaginings into realities and create the actual circumstances we desire for ourselves. We regret the fact that we must one day die. Our body is made of organic matter and will fight to stay alive, yet we alone are conscious of the fact that the struggle is pointless. We were born without asking to be, and we will most likely die in the same way. What happens when we die is unknowable and terrifying to us. We choose life yet have to accept death. This conflict is at the center of all anxiety and there is nothing in the world more painful.

When a senseless tragedy occurs the terror that accompanies the threat of nothingness will arise, although sometimes at the edge of consciousness where it is quickly batted away or ignored. As Irvin Yalom would say, it’s difficult to stare at the sun for more than a few moments, but just like the sun, even if you don’t look directly at it you can always feel it and you always know it’s there.

Some people will hear about this tragedy, feel a sense of regret or sadness, and then go back to all the projects and responsibilities in their lives. They are probably protecting themselves from reviving dormant areas of unfinished grief that felt too painful to complete the first time. We call this unfinished business, and it will negatively color your life and perceptions in many important ways. If you give yourself the full opportunity to take time to be serious and meditative you will surely be surprised by the thoughts and emotions that surface.

This is why the single most important thing to remember when you are grieving is to let yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling without censure or judgment. This goes for any thought or emotion you have. Allow the wide range of emotions to bubble up and follow them wherever they may lead. Observe your thoughts or emotions and let yourself be as aware as possible of what they are. But don’t try to change them. Let them be like clouds floating across the sky. Some will be thunder clouds and look quite threatening. Others will be billowy white and seem inviting. Whatever you are feeling is the correct way to be feeling. Let yourself feel it fully. Inhabit the emotional state and also be fully aware of what that state is. This does not mean you have to act on what you are feeling. Just experience it with your whole being and raise your awareness about what it is telling you.

Sometimes people try to repress what they are feeling because it might not fit their expectations of what grief should be like or it might violate some social rule or cultural tabu. For example, feeling gratitude or a sense of relief that this didn’t happen to someone you love is a completely healthy and life-affirming thing to recognize. You can use the opportunity to honor the people you care about and let them know how you feel about them. Yet many people will be ashamed for feeling relief and as if they are being selfish. Don’t compound an emotionally explosive situation by judging what you are feeling.

Grief is a confusing phenomenon and it usually makes us experience the wide gamut of emotions very deeply. There is no right or wrong thought or emotion to have. There is only letting yourself authentically experience and honor them as they occur. Grief is not pathological. It is not a disorder and in fact is the birthright of every human being. Grief is the natural human response to loss. Grief can be touching and beautiful. Along with the raging storm of anger, regret, and sadness you can have moments of gentle contemplation, tranquility, and hope. You can let yourself feel emotions as deeply as you were meant to feel them, and renew your gratitude for the miracle of human life. Letting go is something we all must learn to do because life is change.

There are two directions you can move after tragedy. One is towards creation and the decision to grow. The other is destructiveness where all of your relationships suffer. I hope this tragedy reminds us to feel profound respect for the brevity and sacredness of life, and I hope that shoots of love spring up through the rubble of this evil atrocity and grow into a lush forest.