Newtown: A Shared Experience

A noteworthy event took place in Newtown, CT last month.

On May 31, the Newtown community proudly hosted a gathering of visitors.

No media, no politics -- just people.

Titled, Community Connections - The Shared Experience, the purpose of this unique occasion was to connect residents of Newtown with people from communities around the country who have experienced gun violence.

"Most therapeutic changes happen outside of therapy...they happen in relational interactions with people who can provide positive experiences."

Dr. Bruce Perry
Author, "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog - What Traumatized Children can Teach us About Love, Loss and Healing"

Flying in from Columbine, Colorado came three students and a teacher who survived the 1999 shooting, the school's principal and, Carolyn Mears, a mother of a surviving student who following the shooting authored the book, "Reclaiming Schools in the Aftermath of Trauma."

Journeying from Chardon Ohio, came the parents of a victim of that 2012 school shooting and with them, Frank Hall, the coach who pursued and disarmed the shooter

Three Virginia Tech families also made the excursion; two whose children were wounded and one who lost their daughter.

Disembarking from a large tour bus, over thirty members of the Nickel Mines Amish Community gracefully crossed the threshold into the Newtown Community. Still grieving from their own 2006 horrific school shooting, there were survivors, teachers, EMS workers and parents of victims.

Accompanying the Amish was Terri Roberts, the mother of the gunman. Terri came to speak about forgiveness - something the Amish community has bestowed upon both she and her son.

"Time does not heal - time gives you the opportunity to heal..."

Dr Kevin Becker
Keynote speech - Newtown Community Day, May 31, 2014

Residents were offered a choice of breakout sessions. Guests were divided among the following sessions depending on where they may offer their own perspective and hindsight.

Understanding Trauma
Relationships & Parenting Through the Fear and the Worry
School-Parent-Community Partnership
Community Connections -Coming Together to Understand the Unique Needs
A Role for Forgiveness?

As in any community wide event, particularly one of such sensitivity, residents came away with differing observations.

"As a parent of a surviving daughter, I realize we are not alone."

Newtown Community Day Attendee

Many found the discussions and speakers enormously helpful and encouraging, while others found them less beneficial, even painful and re-triggering.

"Never assume you know the worst part of a tragedy for person's healing therapeutic, moving salute is another person's re-triggering of the trauma."

Dr. Kevin Becker

One element of the day, however, did receive unanimous approval: the opportunity to freely and informally socialize with others who have shared similar experiences. Casually mingling over meals and in between sessions gave attendees a way to make relaxed and organic connections.

"I learned from this day that recovery is about being in this together - that our differences are specific to how we process but that our similarities and common support are like gold."

Newtown Community Day attendee

With the connections came sentiments of hope and well-being.

"Spending time with others who have suffered similar tragedies is comforting - there's no explaining, no fear of being judged, no need to be stoic - you can just be. It's an instant relief to be with others that understand without any exchange of information . . . just a nod or a hug. It's a state of ease that is achieved almost instantaneously and is so welcome after so much heartache, pain & stress."

Lori Haas, parent of a wounded Virginia Tech student

With the hope and well-being came restored strength.

"The overwhelming strength and peace that comes with the realization that you're not alone, is immeasurable."

Michelle Ferro, Columbine School shooting survivor

It brings to mind an interesting, albeit merciless, science experiment from the 1950's.

When Dr. Curt Richter released a group of rats into an enclosed jar of swirling water to see how long they would last before drowning, the rats swam for fifteen minutes then sank to the bottom and died.

Dr. Richter repeated the experiment with a second group of rats, except this time, Dr. Richter removed the rats seconds before they perished. He dried and held them, let them scurry about, then placed them back in the water.

This time the rats lasted sixty hours before succumbing.

Dr. Richter concluded that an internal representation of a better outcome, in other words a fleeting glimpse of an alternative future, gave the rats hope and subsequently, the energy to persevere.

Victims of gun violence have no doubt felt for some time, disheartened - battling an immeasurably strong current against a number of personal and political obstacles such as post traumatic stress and lack of awareness around psychological health and reasonable gun legislation.

However, as the pool grows, it could be said that the human connections gradually being fused are offering what Dr. Richter briefly offered his rats: purpose, hope and strength.

"Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love."

Dr. Bruce Perry

Collective empathy, compassion and determination may be just what is needed to manifest that vision of an alternative future; a future in which the epidemic of gun violence smothering our country is finally eradicated.
"We [work together] because it gives us hope. We do this to honor the children we've lost, and those who survive, because we believe that fathers inspired to work together can overcome their political differences and sweep away this sense of powerlessness."

Mark Barden and David Wheeler
Washing Post Editorial, Father's Day, 2014

While the nationwide activism is inspiring, the personal connections taking place behind the scenes are equally if not more instrumental.

"Mr. Martinez, we love you and we are in your corner. I pray you will guard your heart against the more than occasional ugly that will come your way."

Nelba Marquez-Greene
Mother of Ana Grace, killed in Sandy Hook School shooting
Facebook post to Richard Martinez, father of Chris Martinez, killed in Santa Barbara shooting

There frequently arises, from a meaningful connection, a moment when a person is made to feel special. That feeling can later be drawn upon for sustainability when sensations of emptiness or hopelessness surface.

"Please know that by including us you helped us on our journey to healing a great deal. While your purpose may have begun as a way to support the Newtown community, the connections you facilitated will ripple throughout all of our communities."

Heather Egeland, Columbine School shooting survivor