Of Grief and Guns

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On May 24, 2022 a gunman carrying two semi-automatic rifles walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and violently took the lives of 19 children and 2 teachers. When a tragedy like this happens in our nation, it shocks us to our core. Words fail as we struggle to make sense of something so senseless. The pain and rage of one young man being multiplied, amplified, taking on a life of its own and sending shockwaves reverberating through the lives of countless others. The death toll is currently 21, but the impact will be felt by millions.


There are some predictable responses to a school shooting like this. Politicians will circle the wagons, seizing the opportunity provided by the crisis to gain momentum for or against gun restrictions. Some will offer thoughts. Some will offer prayers. Pundits and social media influencers will take sides in the culture war, feeding into the outrage and heartache of a grieving nation. Simplistic answers will be offered as a tantalizing balm to soothe our discomfort with the fact that some problems do not have easy solutions.


But what about the rest of us? What are we to do with the flood of emotions that accompanies a tragedy like this? What do we do with our fear for the safety of our own children? What do we do with our pain, our sadness, our rage?


Some of us will bury it, try to ignore our emotions, put our heads down, and get back to work. Work (like alcohol) can be a helpful analgesic for a while, but eventually our buried emotions resurface in the form of depression, anxiety, nightmares, irritability, or exhaustion.


Others of us will sink deep into those same emotions, letting them bury us under mountains of grief and despair until it feels like there is no way out. This over-identification with our emotions – while more authentic – does not usually result in a sense of stability that enables us to move forward with a sense of resilience and hope; two necessary ingredients for moving forward with life after a tragedy.


For my own part, I have (unhelpfully) taken my grief to social media. Posting articles, stats about gun deaths, poetry, memes, prayers, reflections, political cartoons, more stats, more articles, and around and around I go. I don’t think I’m really winning anyone over to my point of view, nor do I find it particularly cathartic or healing. It’s just what I’ve been doing with my heartache. I’m taking my rage out on pseudo-friends on Facebook by commenting on their posts and fact-checking their memes. It’s a bit embarrassing, to be honest.


Ah… and just like that, I’ve done something a little bit helpful for my own grief. I’ve just named and acknowledged a real emotion that I’m feeling this very moment: embarrassment. And despite my discomfort with that particular feeling, there is a slight sense of relief as well. It feels good to know and name what’s really going on. Even if it’s not pretty.


What if I gave myself permission to do that with all the emotions I’m feeling about Uvalde? What if instead of posting memes and articles, I gave a voice to the sadness I feel? What if I let myself feel the full force of anger pulsing through my body and pounded it into the pavement through my running shoes rather than passive-aggressively posting on Facebook? What if I acknowledged my fear for the safety of my own children and learned to befriend it, rather than banish it? Emotional health is not the absence of emotion – it’s the ability to feel a full range of emotions at appropriate times, for appropriate durations, and with appropriate intensity.

So however you are dealing with the events in Uvalde – if you’re obsessively watching the news, or meticulously avoiding it; if you’re distracting yourself with work/TikTok/Netflix; if you’re in a frenzy of social media posting, or if you’ve pulled the blinds down and retreated to the faux safety of isolation – I want you to know two things:


1.     It’s ok to acknowledge the particular way that you are responding to this latest national tragedy. As you do this, try to be gentle with yourself, even if the way you’re responding is unhealthy or unhelpful or embarrassing – like it is for me.


2.     It’s ok to feel what you’re really feeling. If you feel helpless and exhausted, give yourself permission to feel that way. If you feel afraid, give your fear a voice by telling a close friend or family member about it. If you’re sad, let yourself cry. Put your emotions into words by writing them out, or let them out through your body by doing yoga or exercising.


The time for practical solutions will come. But first, let’s give ourselves permission to grieve in all the messy ways we do. Be kind to yourself, and to someone else if you can manage.


Michael Hazeltine, MA, LPC