Becoming numb is inevitable when living in a country that makes killing people easy. After learning that a gunman murdered 19 children and two adults at a Texas elementary school, it took me nearly 24 hours to weep. Distraught yet desensitized, I couldn’t express grief. I’d seen a version of this happen so many times before.
Then, on Twitter, I came across a tribute to Eva Mireles, the 4th grade teacher who died trying to shield her students from an 18-year-old reportedly armed with an AR-15-style rifle. Her bereft daughter composed a heartbreaking goodbye in the Notes app and shared it with the world. “I want you to come back to me mom,” she wrote.
I am a mother but you needn’t be one to grasp the devastating grief and longing contained in this single sentence. In Uvalde, the small town west of San Antonio where the shooting took place, the violence stole parents from their babies, and babies from their parents.
“I want you to come back to me mom.”
Numbness to this reality, I think, is one way to cope with the fact that trauma is a feature of American life, not an unintended defect. When the gunman attacked in Uvalde, it’d been just 10 days since a shooter with alleged white supremacist views targeted and killed Black shoppers in Buffalo. Losing hope is inevitable when living in a country that makes killing people easy.
Each mass shooting brings renewed calls for gun safety reform — and the crushing realization that entrenched corporate and conservative political interests are opposed to meaningful legislation to prevent people from obtaining firearms when they shouldn’t possess them. Though the most common proposals — the expansion of background checks and use of “red flag” laws to temporarily confiscate a gun from someone who is an imminent danger to themselves or others — may not have stopped the shooter in Uvalde, they might stop other killers.
We can debate when the word trauma should be deployed, but I can think of few things more psychologically distressing and damaging than seeing people regularly slaughtered in schools, theaters, grocery stores, and houses of worship, and realizing that numerous politicians and their supporters refuse to find ways to stop the bloodshed. When pleas to save us from carnage go unheeded, there is no safe harbor.
The implications of such trauma reverberate on social media where people, myself included, voice their rage and despair. There are calls to vote, organize, and rally. There are digital memorials to the dead, like Mireles’ daughter’s letter. There is collective grief and, counterintuitively, the isolation and loneliness of processing it from behind a screen. Humans are not well-equipped to transition between answering their email and sobbing while looking at the smiling faces of children who died by gunfire in their classroom. Wondering if a child they love will be next is too much uncertainty to bear.
If you feel hopeless in this deluge of pain, it’s partly because social media is both an outlet and a gauntlet. Platforms make it possible to express a sentiment or opinion, but there’s no guarantee that our lived reality will change, especially when politicians opposed to reform post the latest version of their “thoughts and prayers” condolences. There’s also no assurance that what happened in Uvalde won’t be turned into someone’s false flag conspiracy theory to spread on social media, injecting yet more horror into the lives of the bereaved.
We live in an era of cascading traumas. From mass shootings to a pandemic that’s claimed 1 million lives in the U.S. to the crisis of climate change, America is a country ripe for despair. I have written before about strategies to cope with relentless tragedy. Media exposure to graphic imagery and details can lead to anxiety, acute stress, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Some argue that we must confront the graphic nature of what happened at Robb Elementary School, but the research suggests that can have harmful effects. There’s no need, for example, to doomscroll in search of details about what physical condition police found murdered children and their teachers. We can be generous with our compassion and resources, in support of the grieving families, without knowing such specifics.
How to help after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas
I’ve previously argued that radical acceptance is one way to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach described the practice to me as “the courage to face and accept reality, our current experience, what’s happening now.” She also likes to frame radical acceptance as a question: “What’s happening right now inside me, and can I be with this with kindness?” Starting from this place, Brach argues, we can find the resolve to fight for justice.
These and other important coping strategies help us emotionally survive another day, but how long can they steady us in a political system that knowingly inflicts all manner of trauma on its people? And this harm is disproportionately experienced by historically marginalized groups: Black, brown, and Indigenous people; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people; poor people; and people with disabilities, among others.
This week, I am searching for hope that the deaths of 19 schoolchildren will lead to laws that prevent future massacres. Some say that will never happen, that we must learn to live with guns because there are not enough votes in Congress or on the Supreme Court to pass and defend gun reform. This may ultimately be true, but I also believe that a society that gives up its vision of a safer future is worse off than one that fights for it against the odds.
Still, determination can wane. I’ve found that social media often obliterates hope as quickly as it inspires it. Noticing that two very unlikely allies have partnered to lobby for reform is promising. Recognizing that their opponents get feverish praise from supporters is gut-wrenching.
But the hope I’m searching for isn’t viral. Instead, it’s the enduring transformation that happens when we make meaning of our trauma, often by taking action. Honestly, I don’t know where that hope is right now, but it feels essential to find when I look at the beautiful faces of the children who died in Uvalde, when I read the words that Adalynn wrote for her mother, Eva Mireles, when I think of the mass shooting survivors championing reform, who refuse to surrender their will and conviction. The possibility of meaningful change may feel intolerably distant. But if ever there was a time to cling to hope and demand reform, it’s now.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email email@example.com. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.