First, thank God you are here to read this. Do not discount this fact. You are alive – and yes, you now carry a burden to bear that seems unbearable. But you have this opportunity to continue breathing and doing good during the remainder of your days.
Second, my deepest condolences for the losses you suffered. Your friends, your colleagues… I cannot imagine the depth of grief and pain. All any of us can do is offer our love, and accompany you as you walk this dark valley.
You probably wonder why you survived and your co-workers did not. Set that question aside for now. There is no answer. As for the anguish of why?, there will be theories and some reasons – none of them adequate to justify the deaths of your colleagues, and none of them sufficient to return life to the way it was at eight o’clock Monday morning.
You survived. Now you face an impossible task. Or at least it appears that way.
You will never be the same. Your family and friends did not go through this with you, and cannot fully understand what you endured or how you feel. Do not use that as a reason to shut them out. Rather, educate them. That requires you to open your mouth and let them see your bruised heart. This wound, invisible as it is, will fester and ruin your life if you hold it like a secret.
There’s a good chance that you need to forgive yourself, especially if you are military. Like civilian first responders, the focus of your life and training is to protect the rest of us. Your instinct was most likely to rush to the threat and neutralize it.
If you’re beating yourself up because you did not do that, please look at it from another perspective.
What did you do when you recognized the situation?
Did you realize that rushing out to confront the shooter or to aid the injured at that moment would not be successful? That you were unarmed, and facing an unpredictable and deadly threat? Seeking shelter, then, was the first step in survival – and remember, you, alive, were (and are) more effective than you, dead.
When able, did you help co-workers get to a safe room and barricade the door? Did you, in an act of unrehearsed teamwork, assess the potential for escape – and then implement a plan? My guess is that you were one of the last people (if not the last) out of the room and down that hallway.
And was that your voice, authoritative and calm, instructing people to not panic, to not push their way down the stairs? What about when you all reached an area where you could help direct terrified people to safety? Bet you didn’t run. In fact, I bet you took charge.
I would bet my house on the fact that your training saved you and saved others.
Please let yourself look at it through this lens.
And please accept help. Being in the military doesn’t mean that you are immune to grief or fear or stress. Nor does it mean that you must always save/serve others. Sometimes it’s your turn to receive – and that’s one of the hardest lessons to learn. But it is as necessary to your continued survival as your ‘survive, evade, resist, and escape’ training was in getting you to this point.
Reach out to get the help you need, whether it’s one-on-one counseling or a support group or calling a hotline in the middle of the night. Let your family/friends know what helps, and don’t hesitate to ask. No one can read your mind in the best of circumstances; don’t expect them to read it now, when you are emotionally battered.
Grief is its own process, and takes time to work through. No one grieves the same way, and there is no “right” way to do it. But it must be done, or it will drag you under.
PTSD is likely to rear its ugly head. Learn your triggers, and learn how to cope. We know so much more about it than we did even ten years ago; get help if you need it.
A word about substance abuse: You may very well need some help right now. Something to help you sleep, or to alleviate anxiety. Use those the same way you use any tool, judiciously, for the purpose intended, and as needed. Alcohol doesn’t help anything; it sure as hell doesn’t numb the feelings or make you forget. All things in moderation, and be vigilant for signs of abuse. Dial it back before that turns into its own problem.
Whether you are a practicing believer or not, allow the possibility of letting God into your life, a little bit or a little deeper. He wants nothing more than to stop the world and concentrate on healing your soul.
This is a tough time. I have faith that you can make it through, one breath, one minute, one hour, one day at a time. I love you. Your family loves you. Your friends love you. Your nation supports you.
You’ve acted with honor and courage. Now commit to your own healing.