As my family got through the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, I have felt the need to share what is happening in the community with my nurse colleagues to show the long-term effects of the trauma. Nurses might ask; where are we now? What was missing when the recovery efforts were established? Did we get what we needed from all the aid that came upon our town?
My answer is no.
The lack of true, long-lasting connections between people has gone missing. We all came together within the first 6 months, carrying each other through, surviving. Now I see the aftermath of walls that have been built to protect feelings from getting hurt or from being exploited for an opinion one may have had. Many of the children who have been affected by this tragedy are still having nightmares, still asking questions such as, “Why did the bad man do what he did?” Families are torn, couples struggle to stay together, and sad faces, angry outbursts, limited patience, and isolation have overwhelmed the community. Unfortunately, no one is talking about any of this. Proximity to the tragedy doesn’t matter; everyone has been affected. The ripple effect that I spoke about over a year ago is ever so rippling.
What is missing is our community feeling safe enough to expose our pain to one another, feeling as if we have to keep it together. What would have helped from the beginning is establishing many therapeutic groups led by seasoned trauma specialists to help the community heal and stay connected with one another. Efforts to formulate such groups have not succeeded and I’m not quite sure why. Or perhaps the efforts were never taken? Many live in their own silos, trying to navigate the systems, trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Some are even embarrassed to get help for their children because they and their children “should be ok.” Many outsiders respond, saying, “Still, but that happened two years ago.” My answer is, “YES it’s all now, just coming out.”
On 12/14/12 and the year following, each of us was in shock; functioning on auto pilot, trying to figure out what to do next and how to keep our children safe—safe from the media, safe from the world. Many of us struggled in telling our children what had happened that day and why they would never go back to their school again or ever see their friend again, hoping that we used the appropriate language for their developmental level. Many children were silent, not asking questions, never speaking a word of what they heard or what they may have seen. They remained restless and continued to have trouble sleeping or falling asleep. They crawled in our beds in the middle of the night because of nightmares, and not eating or playing like they used to. They became saddened easily and startle easily as well.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have shouted to the world and to all of my friends to make sure their children had a good trauma focused therapist. But, that is exactly what hasn’t happened. Wait lists are long and clinicians are burnt out. Two years later and it’s as if our children know in their bodies what time of year it is, because all of the trauma symptoms seem to creep back up when the cold air arrives.
My children have just recently been ready to process what had happened that horrible day. My youngest daughter fears her big sister will be killed, fears our family will be hurt. Both of my daughters’ dreams and nightmares come and go, most likely depending on what they were exposed to during their school day. As I sit in a play therapy session with my 5-year-old daughter, she reenacts an interaction between herself and a “bad guy” over and over again until she shoots “good bullets” into him to make him good as she states, “ I don’t want to hurt him, I want to make him good so he can’t hurt anyone.” I sit observing with mixed emotions; glad that she is able to finally start working through the trauma, and heartbroken that this is what my child has to process. My 7-year-old still believes she must remain quiet so she is safe and the bad guy won’t get her. As I made this connection over the summer, I struggled to move my children to a therapist who knows trauma better. I think I’ve finally found her.
That has been our reality; that has been the reality of many of the children in our town; as we work through the trauma in private, many don’t know the pain we endure. Many think that we are OK and have moved on; the world certainly has. We worry for what is to come years from now. My nurse colleagues are even surprised when they hear of my girls’ struggles, almost in disbelief, so I choose to not talk about it. I choose not to share with many other people. Trauma has isolated, it has silenced, and it has made us fearful of speaking about the pain that lives in our hearts and our children’s hearts. Perhaps if I don’t talk about it as much it will just go away. Maybe I can dream it away, maybe it’s all just a horrible nightmare and we will wake up and all will be how it was 2 and a half years ago. Friendships have faded away, been lost, and children are fighting their own silent fight. Parents are ill equipped to deal with the aftermath due to the inability to cope with one’s own trauma, nevertheless their children’s.
What I am seeing is our community coming together through faith, local churches, prayer groups, bible studies, and through volunteer and community service efforts. Trying to find a new “normal” Families who have allowed God to heal their pain seem to have something that others do not; perhaps its peace and hope for a better tomorrow. Helping to cast out the darkness and bring more light to their world. That is what I am seeing and it is beautiful. I myself have started a woman of faith book club, which has been my strength.
As a psychiatric nurse practitioner in training I have also educated myself on the effects of trauma among adults and children, I have been proactive with getting my daughters and my family the help we need and I still feel like I have failed in some ways. I doubt some of my decisions and have some regrets. I myself have gotten trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which helps resolve trauma symptomatology.
I am fortunate enough to have received a great education and the ability to advocate for my children. But I still feel so alone in the journey. As our whole family walks this walk, in active treatment and with God at our side we are just trying to keep it together. We ride the waves and hope to not get taken under by a tsunami of emotions. As we ache inside, we count our blessings for our children who were spared that day.
What I am not seeing are agencies reaching out to the ones who are isolated and who are not active in the schools or a church community. These are the ones who need help the most; the ones who need to be sought out. Where are the nurses who usually hit the ground running? I see many non-profits formed, and many organizations started, but I don’t see people getting the help they need. I see families in pain, I see loved ones suffering.
I encourage all my nurse colleagues to educate themselves on what trauma looks like for children and families. Ask the right questions, take a full history, and look for adverse life events that may lead to many future mental and physical ailments. Perhaps you could be the ones aiding a family to seek out help. It’s time for the stigma of mental health to be put away for good and for the medical community to know that trauma comes in many forms.
Anka Roberto is director of the learning resource center and the simulation coordinator at Fairfield University School of Nursing in Connecticut. She is also a Sandy Hook Elementary School mom and a doctoral student in the psychiatry nurse practitioner track at Fairfield University. Read her article “Recovery lessons from the Sandy Hook trauma.”