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How A Town Heals From Mass Tragedy

 

In the aftermath of the mass homicides of Newtown, CT, I wondered how a town collectively heals after such events.  We have innumerable examples from which to draw for purposes of discussion. What follows is not an exhaustive account, but a sampling of how each tragedy blossomed into positive remembrances.

The primary element,  the motivation in each of these true life occurrences was that the focus was on the humanity and goodness of the victim(s) lost versus the event itself.

The Aftermath of July 23, 2007: The Petit Family Murders:

 

Petit family

Petit Family (photo CBS News)

Following a rampage that included stalking, kidnapping, bank robbery, physical restraint, sexual assault/rape, torture ,murder and arson of Dr. William Petit,  Jr and the three Petit women/girls, the State of Connecticut was shaken to its core. Cries for the death penalty for both offenders and an outpouring of collective grief and support were initiated by people around the globe. That one man could survive and ultimately carry on with life is a major miracle.  How did the sleepy town of Cheshire begin and continue on the path of recovery?

Examples:

1) Within the Cheshire playground, Bartlem Park, lined with inscribed bricks, there is one that reads, “In Memory of the Petits;”

2) Cheshire Academy: Employer of Wife/Mother Jennifer Hawk-Petit. (a former nurse), created memorial garden in her name;

3) Creation of the Petit Family Foundation whose multiple missions include the sponsoring of scholarships in the areas of women pursuing careers in science, families of violent crime and Multiple Sclerosis. (Jennifer Hawk- Petit suffered from MS); Also:

The Aftermath of Columbine High School:

Shooting at Columbine High School

Shooting at Columbine High School (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, Rodolfo Gonzalez/file)

April 20, 1999 A rampage by two crazed, depressed male students who were outcasts with a death wish with grandiose ideas to make an unforgettable impact on the world before they went down. The bomb failed, but the bullets seemingly never stopped until 12 students, and one teacher was shot dead, 21 others were injured.

  • The Greater Littletown Youth Initiative: After 13 years, this group composed of school personnel. Mental health professionals, law enforcement and citizens continue to meet every Friday to discuss their children, issues and preventative measures to forestall future attacks: A strong emphasis is placed specifically on “Blueprint” programs.
  • A powerful “Lie-down protest” with dozens of participants by the steps of the State Capital the day after the shootings to plead for tougher gun laws.
  •  Rachael’s Challenge: An outgrowth of kindness and compassion begun at the muddle school level- Anti-bullying;
  • Columbine CD Producer Announces New CD Project Honoring Life of Columbine Victim:
  • A new CD project has been launched by Columbine CD producer honoring the life and legacy of Rachel Joy Scott, the student who gained much notoriety from her death in the tragedy at Columbine High School.
  • Honoring Daniel Welcome to the Daniel Mauser website. This site is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Conner Mauser. Daniel was taken from us in the tragic massacre at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999.
  • The 10th Anniversary of The Columbine Massacre: About 1,000 people gathered for a sunset memorial service at Clement Park, next to the school, where survivors, relatives and current students reflected on the massacre. A dove was released for each of the 13 victims as principal Frank DeAngelis read their names.

 The Aftermath of the Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University Rampage Shootings

Remembering Virginia Tech Shooting

Remembering Virginia Tech Shooting

On April 16, 2007, 32 students and faculty were killed on campus and 17 others injured in two separate attacks by a deranged student. The massacre prompted the state of Virginia to close legal loopholes that had previously allowed Cho, an individual adjudicated as mentally unsound, to purchase handguns without detection by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The incident prompted schools nationwide to install state-of-the-art notification systems that would broadcast warnings to cellphones, electronic bulletin boards, e-mail accounts and social media. Virginia Tech, especially, began responding to any campus threat.

  • Day of Remembrance: We Remember: Organized runs, candlelight vigils, picnics poetry, music and other events have been part of the remembrance every year…
  • The Annual Day of Remembrance & Website: 32 students and faculty members who were tragically taken from their loved ones and our community on April 16, 2007. They ranged in age from 18 to 76 and represented a variety of academic areas, faith and ethnic groups
  • VT Engage: The Community Learning Initiative: Includes a variety of service projects and grants to inspire VT students to become part of the larger community.
  • The Office of Support & Recovery was initiated after the massacre to facilitate support, commemoration activities, student alerts and provide counseling;

Assassination Attempt of Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Gifford shooting

Gabrielle Gifford shooting (photo/CNN)

The Aftermath of the rampage shootings on January 8, 2011 and attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Arizona. Six fatalities and 13 additional injured persons were targeted at a supermarket.

  • Americans for Responsible Citizens – Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly’s effort to advocate for responsible gun policies and decrease the power of gun lobbies. ;
  • As of February 2012, the U.S, Navy honored Gabby Giffords by naming a ship in her honor for  supporting the military and veterans, advocating for renewable energy and championing border security,”

 

 The Aftermath of Newtown, CT /Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre- December 14. 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (photo/AP)

A work still in progress with gifts, donations, honors and remembrances of every variety imaginable. However a few words of caution from experts

testifying before the Connecticut Legislature on “Recovering from National Tragedies: How Schools and Communities Recover” February 22, 2013.  Experts Dr. Thomas DeMaria of Long Island NY and the 9/11 Mass Homicides and Dr. Marlene Wong of Los Angeles spoke on this topic.

 

A couple of the many interesting points to keep in mind when formulating recommendations, and implementing policies regarding the outpouring of support and the physical environment of the event:   

1) Dealing with the outpouring of gifts – It is well-intentioned, but can be a real problem and barrier to healing as schools have to rent warehouses to store the goods and figure out how to distribute equitably is a real problem as well as the  increased expenses incurred. More importantly, the access to celebrities and, numerous material goods is not normal in the everyday scheme of life and should be done with care and caution.

2) It is vitally important to change the entire environment in which the event occurred (if it is not razed) such that children feel safe. Historically, they will not enter an environment where they witnessed violence.  Therefore, changing the physical structure, layout, painting, making it bright and welcoming is very important for their healing.

 3) If it is not changed, the scene tends to attract local voyeurs and curiosity seekers, going to the site, wanting to have their photo taken on site etc.

A sign of hope. Both psychologists felt that there is a multitude of support in Newtown and Connecticut,  and that they are better suited than many small towns to deal with the aftermath.  Link:

 “How a town heals is a measure of the goodness of its people.”   DRG

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