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Recovering From a High School Shooting

A sad story in modern life, at least in America, are all of the mass shootings in our public schools. As a psychologist I worked with students and their families who were directly affected by two different shootings. This is a story of how one young man recovered from a high school shooting.

A Wonderful Young Man

My work at one of these schools was was with the best friend of the shooter. This was a really wonderful young man who was devastated by the event because of his close relationship with the shooter. I met with him for about 8 to 10 months following the shooting. Initially, I listened to him, asked questions to draw him out, and encouraged him to open up and tell his story.

From Empathy to Agency

As time went on, I gradually shifted from empathy and listening and focusing on the trauma of the event to helping him recognize his thoughts, the story he was telling himself about the event. In truth, it was not just what happened but also the way he framed it that contributed to his depression and loss of interest in life. Recovering from the shooting would also require that he tell himself a different story.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that he should not have felt depressed and even hopeless. These were natural feelings given what he’d been through and I think it was important for him to honor and give space to these feelings. But I also wanted to help him to move forward with courage and hope. I knew he’d need to take some responsibility for his feelings and perceptions, at some point in the process, in order to do that.

Challenging His Thinking

So after a few months, I brought a stack of 3×5 cards to each of our meetings and asked him to watch for and write down any negative thoughts on the front of a card as we proceeded through a given session. Not that his thoughts were wrong or bad or unexpected, I’d tell him. But I wanted him to really see them and their impact on his day-to-day life.

Towards the end of each session, he would have written on five or six cards. These were things like, “I can’t trust people.” I’ll never feel happy again.” “Things are not what they seem.” “I can’t trust my own judgment.”

I would ask him to read through these thoughts and pick just one to work on before we concluded. He’d make his choice and I’d ask some questions about it.

  • How does this thought affect your feelings and behavior?
  • Who are you when you hold onto this thought?
  • What might be different in your life if you were able to drop this thought?”

I’d also have him identify some of the cognitive distortions within this thought—black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, mindreading, mental filter, catastrophizing, labeling, personalizing, and so on.

My last request was to rewrite the thought after taking out the distortions. I’d have him turn each card over and write several other thoughts that were more rational and objective. Then I’d ask him to choose one of those thoughts that he could most buy into and we’d talk about it.

  • What was the evidence in favor of this thought?
  • How would it cause him to feel and act if he could believe this rather than his original thought?

And then I’d ask him to rehearse or practice this new thought for the next week or so. And so went the process of helping him recover.

My World Has Been Shattered

Slowly, this young man’s thinking began to shift as he realized that it was not just the event, as horrible as it was, but also the stories he was telling himself about the event that kept him trapped.

I recall one particular heart-breaking thought that this young man shared with me one day. “My world has been shattered.” Wow, I thought about the connotation and negative power of that metaphor. Imagine a lamp or pane of glass that has been shattered. It would be impossible to put back together again. Talk about a metaphor leaving him depressed and totally devoid of hope!

So we explored it for a while. How does this thought affect your feelings and behavior? Who are you when you hold onto this thought? What might be different if you could let go (or hold less tightly) this thought? We also looked at the distortions.

Some Deeper Questions

And then I asked him some deeper questions. What changed the day of the shooting? I listened as he explained that some people lost their lives, he lost his best friend, he lost his enthusiasm and excitement about the future. He lost his ability to trust people, to trust his own decision-making, his belief in a good world and so on.

Then I asked him another question. What did not change that day? I was quiet for a number of minutes as he thought. His family did not change. Mother still loved him. His younger brother and sister still looked up to him. He still liked to work out. There were still kids going to school each day. There were other friends at school and in his church group.

I prompted him to go on. The sun still came up in the east each morning. The sky was still blue. Nature seemed pretty much the same. He had the same mind and intelligence. His body was pretty marvelous. The basic laws of the universe did not change.

A New Story

Gradually, he began to tell himself a different story. He began to realize that what did not change was far more and bigger than what did change. Most of life did not change.

That was not an end to his grieving but it was a turning point when he began finding hope and healing in his life. Although the reality of an ugly past did not change for this young man, he changed his story from “My life is shattered. Nothing will ever be the same again,” to “There is still so much good about life. I have a lot to look forward to and live for.” Talking to himself in this way made all the difference as he recovered from the shooting.

I can’t tell you how touched I was to work with this young man as he grappled with a really hard reality and reclaimed his place in the world.

Hard things happen in life. It’s inevitable. But it is equally important to remember that, ultimately, we decide what these things mean. Sometimes we need help to deal with trauma. Nothing wrong with that. We’re not meant to do life on our own. But I also want to suggest that the stories we tell ourselves matter.

Can you look at your stories? What stories do you tell yourself that empower you and fill you with courage, hope, and goodwill? On the other hand, do you tell yourself stories that leave you anxious, depressed, or defeated? Would you be willing to challenge these stories? You have that power. You are not condemned to be a victim of the events of life but have been blessed with the creative ability to write your own story. So what’s your story as you look back? And as you look forward to the rest of your life? You decide. Why not decide in your favor?

And if you’ll indulge me, I want to mention my highly rated course entitled “Managing Stress and Building Resilience Masterclass.” It’s a resource to give you tools and skills to face the hard things in your life.

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