6 Normal Thoughts and Feelings After Surviving a School Shooting

 
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Grappling with the aftermath

Surviving a school shooting can come with a lot of complex feelings and thoughts. Let’s take a closer look at 6 feelings and thoughts you could be experiencing and why you’re not alone in this.

 

Content Warning: The following article contains descriptions of panic, grief, and other intense feelings. Some links to survivor stories include graphic descriptions of school shootings which might be distressing for some readers. If you are worried about your reaction to the following content but would like to continue reading, we encourage you first to identify something you can do if you feel distressed such as reaching out to a friend, doing a grounding activity, etc.

Breaking the stigma

If you’ve survived something as traumatic as a school shooting, you know a thing or two about the challenging emotions that can present in the aftermath. Sometimes sharing these feelings can be more difficult than experiencing them. This can be attributed to stigma. What’s inconvenient about stigma is that you and the person next to you can have the exact same feelings, but they may not feel comfortable telling you because they are afraid you’ll look down on them.

Here at youthempowerment.com, we believe in breaking the stigma by talking about those difficult emotions. We believe that empowerment and healing start with the conversations society shies away from. We want to disrupt the narrative. Talking about feelings is healthy; it’s like cardio for your mental health. It gets your heart pumping, and afterward, you feel good and glad you did it.

We don’t expect you to share first, after all, we’re just a random webpage you stumbled upon. So we’re going to start by sharing the stories of students that have survived school shootings, and we hope you’ll see that the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing aren’t so unusual after all. Without further adieu, here are six thoughts and feelings you might experience after surviving a school shooting.

1. Reluctance to Talk About It

Danielle Vabner, sister of Noah Pozner, who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School recalls:

“I didn’t talk about what happened to my brother a lot at first. I think my friends wondered why I didn’t bring it up. I felt like I couldn’t, I shouldn’t share. That it was a burden on others to hear it. It’s hard to be around other people my age that I have no connection to, who have no idea what I have been through. In some ways, I didn’t want to come to terms with what had happened.”

You can read more of her story in Teen Vogue, “What It's Like to Survive a School Shooting.” 

There is a whole host of reasons (beyond our societal reluctance to share our feelings) that may make you feel uncomfortable talking about what you’ve been through and how you’re feeling. Perhaps you fear you’ll be a burden to others or drag people down. Maybe you are tired of being asked intrusive questions, and you aren’t ready to share, or perhaps you're afraid you’ll be looked down on for what you think or the way you feel. 

Between us, sharing your feelings will never be a burden; we won’t look down on you for the thoughts you have, and we'll never pressure you to share before you’re ready. Of course, we encourage you to find people who you feel safe talking to, but you are never obligated to talk to anyone about what happened and how you’re doing. 

Bottom Line: You get to decide when and where you share your story and feelings.

2. Needing to Leave

Danielle goes on to say: 

“Less than a month later, I went back to school. I didn’t want to, but I tried to just think of the future and what I should be doing, but it was not easy by any means. I finished the rest of the year there but decided to transfer for my sophomore year to the University of Texas at Austin. I just wanted to go somewhere else and be as geographically far away as I could get from where I heard the news about Noah. Normal life had been ripped away from me.” 

Read more in Teen Vogue, “What It's Like to Survive a School Shooting.” 

Reminders of the shooting can seem to crop up everywhere, making the space around us feel unsafe. Perhaps it’s the classroom you sheltered in, the restaurant you were leaving when you got those frantic texts, or the memorials and vigils covering the town. Being in these places and seeing these images can jolt your brain back to the traumatic event and bring up overwhelming feelings of distress and panic. It’s natural to avoid these triggers; if leaving the area where the incident occurred makes you feel safe, honor that instinct, and listen to your inner voice.

Bottom Line: Sometimes, we do better when we are given space and time away. Listen to your needs and don’t put as much weight on where others think you “should” be.

3. Needing to Stay

Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia:

“A lot of people thought I would transfer. I was never going to transfer. I had to finish what I started. Going back to campus had to happen. It was hard at first to go back to a classroom and sit there when someone slammed a door or was running to class and burst into the room. Going back and finishing my education gave me a sense of overcoming adversity. Of being able to return and succeed. I go back to campus now for football games every year. There are parts of campus that are more somber places for me than others, but I can’t wait to take my kids there one day and have it be a part of their lives. My younger sister even went there after I did. There was a horrible tragedy that happened on that campus, but so much good has come from it if you are willing to see through it and find that good. It is there.”

Read more in Teen Vogue, “What It's Like to Survive a School Shooting.” 

Staying in the community where you experienced the shooting can be triggering at times, but it can also provide a source of comfort. The people around you have a better understanding of what you’re going through. You don’t have to explain what happened to you or why certain sounds, sights, days, or places are triggering because they get it. In another town, your reactions to a door slamming, fireworks, or other loud noises might seem unusual, but in your community, you don’t have to explain yourself. When a person from your community notices that you're in distress, they won't give you a bewildered look, in fact, they may put their arm around you to offer some comfort.

Bottom Line: Staying in a community that understands what you’re going through can be powerfully healing.

4. Panic

Lynn Davis, a survivor of the Lindhurst High School shooting in Olivehurst, California shares:

“I want people to understand just how much damage this causes for the survivors. It’ll be 26 years come May 1, and I still have severe PTSD. I still have a very hard time talking about it. I get anxiety attacks. I have agoraphobia. I’m afraid of large crowds. I sit in corners in order to make sure I don’t have someone come up behind me and I can keep an eye on everyone. I’m afraid of seeing a gun. I can’t enjoy fireworks because they sound too much like gunshots.”

Learn more about Lynn’s story in Vice’s “Voices of School Shooting Survivors” series. 

Just because the traumatic event has passed, doesn’t mean your body will believe that to be true. Feelings of panic can surface suddenly or be triggered by memories, places, sounds, visuals, or anything else associated with the trauma. Regardless of the reason, when experiencing intense feelings of panic or a "panic attack," your body believes that it is in danger and will sound the alarms and initiate your flight or fight response. 

While panic attacks and symptoms vary by person, common symptoms include an increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling like you’re choking, feeling faint, and hot or cold flashes. Attacks typically last from a few minutes to up to half an hour. Luckily, there are lots of coping techniques out there to help manage panic attacks. If you’d like help to prevent or cope with panic attacks, check out our article here

Bottom Line: As scary and uncontrollable as panic attacks can seem in the moment, with the right support and resources, you can learn how to manage and decrease your panic attacks. 

5. Survivor’s Guilt  

Alec Calhoun, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia:

“My friend Justin, who had been shot in the classroom, had been in the hospital during this first session. He’d returned by the next week and attended our next counseling session. To hear the story from his perspective was very difficult. I was the last person to jump from the windows. I felt guilty for leaving… like it should have been me and not him. But of course, in reality, we were all helpless. There’s nothing you can do, but I think it’s a natural thing to wonder what you could have done differently.”

Read more of his story in Vice’s “Voices of School Shooting Survivors” series. 

Survivors may feel guilt and wish that they had acted differently when, in reality, our responses to trauma are not choices. When we are in life-threatening situations, our bodies hijack us and move toward survival. Whether you fight, flight, or freeze, your body knows what it needs to do to survive. Survivors may also feel guilty that they survived when others did not. “Why did I survive and my friend get hurt?” is a question many ask. One study found that 90% of people who survived a traumatic event when others did not, experienced guilt. We know that Alec Calhoun is not to blame for his friend’s injuries; we know who the culprit is and who deserves to feel guilty. If you are experiencing survivor’s guilt, try talking to a friend. If they went through the same event, chances are they are experiencing the same thing. If they haven’t, they might be able to provide you with an outside perspective and reassure you that you aren’t to blame. If you continue to grapple with survivor’s guilt, reach out to a therapist who can help you work through these feelings.

Bottom Line: Your body did exactly what it needed to keep you safe. You are here and safe, and the world is glad to have you.

6. Wanting to Make a Difference

Danielle Vabner, whose brother Noah Pozner, died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shares::

“When I started to get involved in gun safety work after I started trying to be a normal college student again, it got better. Getting involved gave me my voice back. Advocacy made me comfortable sharing again. It felt wrong to me to just sit back after something like that had happened. There’s nothing that can get Noah back, but I can do something to honor his life. I interned with Everytown. I have gotten involved in the fight against the new campus-carry laws coming to UT.”

You can read more of her story in Teen Vogue, “What It's Like to Survive a School Shooting.” 

After surviving a school shooting, you may feel the need or responsibility to channel your energy into prevention or advocacy efforts. If you are thinking about becoming involved in activist efforts, and it feels right to you, we encourage you to get involved. The act of moving towards a larger goal with a group of like-minded individuals can be healing for survivors.

Here are a couple of places to get you started: 

If you’d like to mobilize voters and advocate for better gun laws, consider joining March for Our Lives or Everytown for Gun Safety.

If you want to ensure that other survivors get the support they need, consider joining Youth ERA’s Taskforce to produce research and resources for survivors of mass shootings. You can email taskforce@youthera.org to express your interest and get more information.

Bottom Line: Sometimes, the paths to change and healing can coincide. Just be sure to take care of yourself along the way.

You’re not alone

Sometimes just knowing that others experience the same challenging thoughts and emotions that you do can be a relief in itself. We hope this list shows you that you’re not the only one experiencing these feelings. If you’d like to help others experience that same relief, try reaching out to a loved one who has also been affected by a school shooting. You may discover that there aren’t just six thoughts and feelings that typically follow a school shooting; there are infinitely more.