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Coping With Tragedy: The Newtown School Massacre

As all of you have heard by now, a young man opened fire inside an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, killing 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself.

The impact of this kind of news can take your breath away.  Our hearts break for the parents of these children killed by an evil, evil man.  Our President spoke about this horrible event, and became emotional himself.  President Obama said, “The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old... They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”  In talking about his own emotion, he said, “I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do." 

How could such a horrible event happen?  To make matters even worse, it occurred just over a week before Christmas.  The lives of those with children who were murdered today will never be the same.   Many others will never get to see their parent again.  Not only that, but all of those with children at the school will be forever changed.  Christmas will never be the same time of innocence and joy that it was prior to today.  The whole country is in mourning at the time of this national tragedy.

At this time there are more questions than answers.  It is hard to know what to say, or what to do at times like this that seem to “kidnap our souls.”  Sometimes all we can do is to take a moment to take a deep breath, let it out; then take another breath.

There are many first responders who have been called to the scene including law enforcement, fire and paramedic, media, and chaplains.  They are trying to be professional and do their jobs.  This is the kind of call that will permanently imprint itself on their psyche.  They will never forget the horrible visions of gore and life robbed from those who were young and so full of life - the smell of death - and the sound of those who refuse to be comforted, crying, and wailing for those who have been lost.

It is important to realize that everyone has been crushed by this news.  It is ok at times like this to have a emotional side.  Understand you may have to step away for a moment to shed a tear, and take a few deep breaths.  Also understand that you have a job to do, and will need to harness those emotions for a time so you can do your job. 

This call will affect you.  If you have kids, you need to go home after your job is done and hold them.  Give them a big hug and thank God that you have them.  You may say a quick prayer for those who lost their child, brother, sister, friend, or parent today.

As we move past this horrible event over the next few days, understand that you will come off of “automatic pilot.” When you do, you may experience a lot of different emotions.  You may be extremely angry, or very sad.  You may have mood swings.  You may also have physical reactions such as upset stomach and irritable bowels.  Headaches are common, as is exhaustion, and irritability.  Some people will develop a bad cold, or flu symptoms as our immune systems will be weakened.  These and more are all normal reactions to grief and a critical incident like this.

Here are a few coping tips for the next few days:

Take some time to pamper yourself.  Your job is hard enough.  Don’t push yourself too hard during your down time.  Relax, watch a funny movie, and hold the hand of your sweetheart.

Be sure to drink lots of liquids while avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol.  Your body will have many different chemicals pumping through it, and it needs help to flush the adrenaline and other chemicals out.  The last thing you want to do is to add more chemicals to the mix by self medicating.  The three ways to dump these chemicals out of our bodies and get to feeling better are to cry them out, sweat them out, or pee them out.  Most people if given a choice will choose to drink lots of water and flush them out that way.

Embrace your faith.  Your first reaction may be to ask how or why God would ever allow such a thing to happen.  We live in a fallen world, and it certainly isn’t “God’s will” for an evil man to decide to try and make a name for himself by doing such an atrocious act.  God is broken hearted Himself over such tragic events.  Take the time to pray, meditate, or just be quiet.

Allow yourself time to grieve and heal.  It is understandable that you have to be in control of your emotions while on your job.  You wouldn’t be able to do your job effectively if you didn’t.  However, when you are off the clock, you don’t have to cram your emotions down.  Give yourself permission to cry, yell, or be emotional for a while; and then don’t feel guilty about it.

Finally, talk to a safe person.  Go to your chaplain, pastor, or a trusted friend and share your heart.  Remember, you don’t have to share the “gory details” but you can share how it made you feel.  If you find yourself not feeling better within a few days seek help.  Don’t suffer through it alone.

Horrible things happen every day.  We can’t always be cushioned from the devastating blows of life.  But our experiences all make us stronger.  We may find that something we have gone through will enable us to help someone else who may not be as strong as we are.  We may be able to help them go through a difficult life experience.


About The Author:

Chaplain Terry Morgan is an ordained minister with over 25 years of experience. He has spent over 12 years as a law enforcement chaplain. He was most recently the Senior Chaplain and Executive Director for the Placer County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, an agency with 63 paid and volunteer chaplains. He is a Master Chaplain Level member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, and is a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He is Board Certified in Emergency Crisis Response through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. And he is a member in good standing, of the California Peer Support Association (CPSA).

Chaplain Morgan earned his Masters degree in Ministry in Public Safety, with an emphasis on Law Enforcement Chaplaincy from Trinity Biblical University and his Bachelors degree in Theology from Pacific Coast Bible College. He has taught Bible college courses, and teaches crisis counseling for chaplains. He is an expert in dealing with traumatic stress, and stress management. He has been frequently published in magazine on a variety of topics related to law enforcement. He teaches various ministries how to help their own parishioners through critical incidents, crisis, and traumatic events, while exercising good stress management techniques and preventing compassion fatigue or burn out in their ministers.