- Quality of Life & Wellness
Communicating on a Spiritual Level Can Produce Healing, Part 2
How Spirituality Can Help Us Heal
Individuals experiencing grief may feel removed from daily life, unable to carry on with routine activities. In situations of experiencing grief and trauma, the result is that it is felt on a deeply interior, private, or personal level. In such circumstances, healing from trauma and grief can therefore be enhanced through a strong spiritual foundation, as it is at the heart of the emotional human experience. A strong spiritual foundation has been shown to help guide individuals through traumatic and grief-inducing experiences including surviving the Holocaust, school shootings like the Columbine incident in Colorado, terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City Bombing, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of the situation, having a spiritual foundation can generate a stronger healing when dealing with grief and trauma.
Although I have written extensively on this topic to include examples and incidents from Oklahoma City and Hurricane Katrina, I have opted to omit them from this article for the sake of brevity. This article is still rather lengthy; however, if you choose to have me to continue to elaborate on my thoughts, I will gladly do so. Just comment below the article and let me know.
Mass Shootings: A Shattering Trauma
Columbine High School, 1999
In 1999, I was a student at the University of Wyoming. Having endured my friend, Matthew Shepard's brutal murder the previous school year, I was shocked to hear of a shooting at the high school where my cousin attended near Denver, Colorado. Jan Price Greenough (2008) stated in her article School Shooting and School Violence, "When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, and killed 12 students and one teacher, the United States reacted with horror and disbelief that such a thing could happen in American schools...But school violence is as old as schools."
Although the Bath School Massacre is not counted as a shooting because the gun was used to detonate a bomb that ultimately killed 38 children and six adults, it occurred in 1927. School shootings, which have only killed one to two people, have not necessarily been considered more than than "sociopathic behavior" and only received local media attention, if any (Price, J., 2008). Yet, since 1966, there have been several other school shootings that would be considered terrorist massacres. Many of them were carried out by "sociopaths;" however, they also received national media attention. The most recent of such incidents was at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013. Victims included 26 children who were murdered, six adult staff who were murdered, two wounded children, and the shooter--who committed suicide.
In the wake of such violence as a school shooting, how do the students reconstruct their lives and successfully redefine "normal?" One survivor of the Columbine High School shooting is not entirely sure that she can successfully overcome this moment in her life. Marjorie Lindholm was seventeen years old and a junior at Columbine when the attacks broke out. In her book A Columbine Survivor's Story (2005), she writes, "I'm a survivor. That's what they say; you know, you know everyone who knows my past and has seen my struggle, felt my disappointment...I was in the Science Room at Columbine High School the day of the world famous shootings. I entered the building on that Tuesday morning as a normal girl with big plans, a fast moving freight train heading to glamorous destinations. By the end of that day, I was a different person, and the world never looked the same" (Preface, Page 1). Marjorie Lindholm's experiences and her own words beautifully and hauntingly sum up many survivors' experiences. Life was one way, and then one day everything changed. "Everything" is later on diminished to one simple word: survivor.
Marjorie's story is one that many psychologists would analyze as the quintessential "survivor's guilt." She was not injured that day, nor was she anywhere where the shootings happened. Yet, she was in the classroom where Coach Sanders stumbled and ultimately died when he had been shot trying to save others from carnage. Lindholm speaks very candidly about the fact that she doesn't even know why she developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet what she had witnessed and the aftermath of the experiences make others wonder how one could not develop PTSD. It took her six years to tell her story, including the dissolution of her family through her parents' divorce, her father's own struggles with PTSD, which he developed as a soldier in Vietnam, and the fact that she felt that she had nothing to share with other people when it came to looking at her own circumstances. Determined to go to college after graduating from high school, she found she had a terrible fear of being in the classroom was more and more lost as her grades started to falter. She speaks consistently of slipping a little more behind.
What ultimately helped Marjorie was the opportunity to tell her story. At a cafe one day, Marjorie and her mother started speaking. Marjorie describes the experience as, "I talked, she listened" (pg. 100). Throughout her entire story, Marjorie consistently speaks about people wanting to know what happened, but not necessarily what she felt, or what she was going through. To be able to admit her own shortcomings and perceived failure with her mother allowed Marjorie to get a sense of being accepted without any kind of judgment. In this moment, she was given the permission to look more within herself without being afraid or critical of what she saw. The moment in the cafe is, arguably, a spiritual moment, one in which she was able to have a similar kind of realization as Viktor Frankl after recovering from his own devastation. She was able to open her heart to her own healing, and from that process was able to use writing as a process of gaining more understanding of her own circumstances.
Unfortunately, Marjorie Lindholm's challenges were not unique only to her circumstances. Many who were in Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, felt the same kind of despair, depression, and isolation Lindholm was able to express so eloquently in her writing. Several students had committed suicide after not being able to find long lasting healing. Compassion from the nation and world was not enough to silence their own demons. Lindholm speaks about how she made the conscious decision to isolate herself from everyone, but it wasn't until she had lost touch and trust with some of her family members that she really did try to make a greater effort to get her life back together. Speaking with her mother and experiencing a true sense of absolute non-judgment was the first step for her.
Many other students looked at their own personal challenges continuing the process of living in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting. One student, Liz Carlston, wrote in 2004, "I learned that it's easy to find something wrong in the world, to be angry and unteachable. It's easy to be focused only on one side of the spectrum and overlook the good still left. It was only when I started to look at the other end of the spectrum and to count my blessings that my anger began to ease away" (pg. 77). This is truly at the heart of spirituality. She found what Marjorie Lindholm couldn't find. Marjorie dwelt so completely in her anger and her sorrow. She pushed others away while Liz reached out. After hearing of Coach Sanders' death, Liz Carlston contacted his wife to tell her how much Coach Sanders had guided her both on the Varsity Volleyball Team, but also in life. She still maintains contact with Mrs. Sanders to this day. Being able to reach out, to find the good in the midst of annihilation, this is the brilliance of spirituality.
Spirituality and Our Inner Strength
Spirituality allows us to find an inner strength, to accept that are human beings and not rocks or trees. There are days that sorrow and trauma can and will consume us. Yet, when we are able to turn inward and regain sight of our own hearts, and to open them up to love, we find a greater connection to humanity, and also a sense of God-consciousness, for those who adhere to faith in the Divine. When individuals can become introspective and allow themselves to still be open to all aspects of support, it is possible to allow themselves to be loved by others until they can love themselves once more. Liz Carlston was able to generate a deep sense of healing very shortly after the Columbine shootings by never ignoring or pushing away her own pain, but also by using her own pain to connect that much more deeply with others. In this sense of spirituality, Liz was able to find her greatest support and generate healing within herself in a time frame many would consider rapid. When reading her story, however, it is also necessary to recognize that even though her accounts were written five years after the Columbine shooting, she still experiences quite a bit of difficulty. But because she has been gentle with herself as well as those around her, when she does have a challenging day, she allows herself the opportunity to reflect on it, and give in to the love of her own spirit to help her through. This is truly a remarkable example of how spirituality helps one to heal.
The survivors continue on with their own lives and their own memories in a way that makes it possible to endure. Yet, there were others who went to gather up their children at the police-designated meeting places, and their children were not there. One family in particular, tells their story with such agonizing clarity that it is rather inspiring. Rachel Scott and her brother, Craig, both attended Columbine High School. On the day of the shooting, Rachel was murdered and Craig witnessed two of his friends die. Their parents were devastated by the loss of one child and the absolute devastation of another. Her family's story is poignantly told in their own book Rachel's Tears: 10 Years After Columbine: Rachel Scott's Faith Lives On (2008).
"We wish we didn't have to do any of this. This whole episode has been a cause of great pain and great loss in our lives. We would drop everything in an instant if we could have Rachel with us once again, or if we could have kept our son Craig from experiencing the horrors he endured that day in the Columbine library" (Nimmo B. and Scott, D. 2008 Rachel's Tears pg. xx). Beth Nimmo and Darrell Scott speak candidly about the events that took place that day, and the events that followed after retrieving their daughter's backpack and the journal it held. Pages were filled with phrases like "I won't be labeled as average," and a number of biblical quotes that drove Rachel's choices and actions in her life. Darrell Scott was talking about his family's tragedy when a young girl came up to him after he had concluded, and shared with him a Bible verse that came to her during Mr. Scott's presentation. Because Darrell Scott is a pastor, he looked at what this young girl had shared with him and said it was a moment of absolute divine clarity. Since that time, Rachel's mother and father, along with her brother Craig, have made it their life's mission to tell Rachel's story and speak to as many audiences as possible. They have found ways to reconnect not only with their immediate community, but also to a global family that deepens their own faith and allows them to consistently ensure that their lives continue forward in a positive way.
Rachels' story is a unique one in that it gives voice to many other families who have lost their children in senseless acts of violence. Finding meaning in the events is seemingly an impossible task, and on many levels, may not ever be possible. Yet, much like Viktor Frankl finding the Hebrew prayer in the pocket of his death camp uniform, finding the images, words, and biblical phrases in Rachel's diaries have helped Darrell Scott and all of Rachel's family to find meaning in the Columbine High School massacre, in Rachel's death, and in their (her family's) lives.
To Be Continued
For the conclusion of this article, please read Part 3