Restoring hope after tragedy strikes

The events of last week will likely forever be burned in our memories, whether you were on the scene that night or watched it from the other side of the world. The shooting of 12 individuals, including the death of five police officers, the fear and horror that unfolded live in front of millions of screens, none of this will be forgotten.

Many of us, if you are old enough, can remember exactly where you were during certain seminal moments in history: the shooting of JKF, the 9/11 attacks, the explosion of the Challenger shuttle. I can still remember exactly where I was on 9/11, I was at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, in a patient‘s room for a standard psychological evaluation, and he had the television on as we watched together the second plane hit the tower.

I remember distinctly the emotions I experienced at the time, the fear and uncertainty and vulnerability that I’m not sure if I had felt before.

This time, many years later, I watched the events happening not in New York but just miles away from the place I call home.

Meanwhile, my husband, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, and the rest of the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas trauma team raced to the hospital to do what they do best: save lives and make people whole again.

As I watched, moving from channel to channel, my immediate first thoughts and prayers were for those who were killed and their families. The impact of losing a spouse, a parent, a sibling or a child cannot be underestimated. To lose someone in such a horrific manner must only add to the pain and anguish.

My thoughts then moved to the witnesses who were there on the scene, to the innocent bystanders who were simply expressing how they felt.

So while peacefully protesting, they were suddenly witnesses to others being injured or killed, running for safety from an onslaught of bullets, all of which has the potential to leave significant psychological scars.

They were doing their “day job” just like my husband and I do ours.

My thoughts then moved to the police officers, the men and women who were there to protect the protestors, individuals who were doing their “day job” just like my husband and I do ours. Except their “day job” that night turned into something that they likely train and prepare for, but also the worst nightmare scenario they never hoped to experience.

Not only were they targets, they had to maintain a first responder role, a protector role and a source of strength for everyone around them.

The stories that have been shared of their heroism that night are truly remarkable, but again, for some, it undoubtedly leaves a psychological mark. And unlike civilians who experience tragedy, they don’t get to necessarily take a break. They are back to duty the very next day.

I also thought about their families, most likely watching the events unfold, and the untold agony of the wait to see if their loved ones in blue were safe.

As I continued to watch, my thoughts drifted back to my friends and colleagues working at the hospital, and of course to my husband, all doing the exceptional work they do, even in unexpected moments of great tragedy.

I couldn’t shake these thoughts as I worried about the emotional toll it was taking on each and every one of them. Even as highly skilled as they are, the stakes were —needless to say — high.

More globally, I thought about the residents of the city we love, the city I’ve called home for over two decades, and how the world likely looks very different now than it did before that night.

When trauma occurs, we feel vulnerable and at risk. Instead of thinking it couldn’t happen here, we now worry could it happen again?

As the days have passed, I then reflected on my own emotions. As a psychologist I have prided myself on the ability to maintain a unique combination of empathy and distance when working with individuals who have sustained trauma, which is the majority of my work. Not only do I see individuals clinically who sustain trauma, I have spent the last several years researching the impact of traumatic injury on patients, families and physician providers.

It’s ironic, then, how over the last few days the fine line of empathy and distance has become blurred. I find myself having to take more deep breaths, to take more moments, to allow myself the time to process in order to move on.

The heroes in this story … they all had to draw on some inner strength to make it through.

And it’s been humbling to admit that it’s just simply hard to deal with all of this, for all of us. Period. But here is what I do know. I know with every ounce of my being, and research supports this, that individuals are resilient after trauma. The heroes in this story, the police, the civilians helping other civilians on the scene, the medical teams, they all had to draw on some inner strength to make it through.

The people of Dallas are resilient. The outpouring of support and love and prayers for those directly impacted by this horrible event has been remarkable. And while I know that undoubtedly there will be some who struggle for a while, some who may need some specific intervention to cope, the majority will adapt and move on.

After a trauma, it’s important to realize that you may experience a variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, irritability and fear, but talking about you feel to loved ones — or if needed, professionals — can help.

We are role models for our children in terms of how we cope, what we show them now can give them tools to better adapt. Providing children with age appropriate information and limiting overexposure to media with graphic or distressing details is important.

Pay attention to signs that a loved one, whether child or adult, is struggling, and reach out. Over the past several days my husband and I have been a supporting each other, knowing each other well enough to recognize when we are having a difficult moment and providing something as simple as a much needed hug.

Research shows that many people will even experience the phenomenon of posttraumatic growth in which after a crisis or trauma people find their interpersonal relationships with others are strengthened or life has taken on a new or more meaningful purpose.

This is my hope for Dallas in the aftermath of this tragedy and for each person who was involved, whether indirectly or directly. We each may have a different path for moving forward but I believe with faith, resilience and support for each other we will.

Dallas is strong.

About the author

Dr. Ann Marie Warren
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Dr. Warren is a clinical psychologist at Baylor Dallas' Level 1 Trauma Center. She provides psychological intervention for patients who sustain severe injuries and is the principal investigator for research that focuses on how trauma impacts patients.

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Restoring hope after tragedy strikes