Virginia Tech – A Loss for All of Us

This has been a sad week for all of us.  I refer, of course, to the tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech.  I know I speak on behalf of millions across the country when I extend deepest support and prayers to all of you who have been impacted by this terrible loss.

Personal impact

For me, personally, this incident has hit me on a number of different levels.  The first, naturally, is the plain horror of “How could something like this happen?”  How senseless, how unfair!

Being a mother of two daughters not that many years out of college, my thoughts stray to: “What if they had been on a campus where something like this took place?  How could I help them cope if they survived; I could ever cope, if they didn’t?”

Many of you may not know it, but aside from my private practice, I also serve as an adjunct professor at a local university in the Psychology Dept.  The day after the incident, I found myself periodically glancing at the door of the classroom.  I was aware of a vulnerability I have never felt in my 15 years of teaching.

And then there is the psychologist part of me.  I had the same reaction I did after the Columbine shootings.  Please understand that in no way do I condone either situation.  But what torture must each of the perpetrators been feeling to believe that there was nothing left for them to do other than these actions?

What help should we be offering

In what way have we let these children down?  In this case, an English teacher became aware that the perpetrator was a troubled young man.  He was assessed, but nothing more was done.  Why?  What are we missing in the early years when there is bullying that isn’t being addressed (as was the case in the Columbine situation)?  Why aren’t we paying more attention to the quiet students who are clearly screaming out for help?

I’m frustrated.  We live in a wonderful state of democracy that respects personal freedom and, therefore, does not charge someone with a crime until there is actually one committed.  And yet, there are often warning signs.  There definitely were in this case.  I am presently working with a client whose son presents with warning signs for a future headline.  Though she tries her best to get him help, her hands are tied due to lack of cooperation of her husband and due process of the law.  How exasperating.for her, for us.

Healing

And then I step back and ask myself as I always do, “What can be taken from this situation, what can be learned?”  This question reflects my belief that though I certainly think each person must grieve and heal their pain, I don’t believe that living in a past that can’t be changed serves the healing process.

The answer to my query came from one of the victim’s fathers who I heard being interviewed.  Of the various questions posed, it seemed the interviewer kept trying to tap into his anger about the way the situation was handled.  One specific question had to do with his feelings about how things were handled in the two-hour period between the initial dorm shootings and the later ones.  Did he wish things had happened differently?  The father replied that he understood that there were circumstances, that his wish was that his daughter had skipped class that day.

The interviewer did pick up on the father’s ability to not focus on anger and asked about it.  The reply was that his daughter was a beautiful energetic young woman and that she had taught him a great deal about living life.  This man, who had just suffered an unimaginable loss, was choosing to focus on his cherished memories rather than the horror of what should have or could have been.

In anticipation of some of your comments, I’ll pose the possibility that this father is in denial.  Or, perhaps this is only a transitional reaction.  Far be it for me to dictate to people how they should grieve or for how long.  But I want to say that I am absolutely in awe of this man and suggest that he is an inspiration to us all.

It is true that even in your pain, you can choose on what to focus.  And as with everything else, our perception is our reality.

Again, my heartfelt love and prayers to all of you who have been touched by this very painful incident – including the family of Seung-Hui Cho.