SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly five years after his little girl Emilie was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Robbie Parker was wondering Monday how to tell his other daughters about another mass shooting — this one the night before during a music festival in Las Vegas.
The killing of 59 and wounding of 520 was not a topic Parker and his wife Alissa could ignore just because their kids are young: They knew Madeline, 9, and Samantha, 8, would learn of the massacre at school, just as they’d heard about the series of devastating hurricanes that dominated new cycles recently, said Parker, a physician’s assistant now living near Portland, Oregon. And just as children around the country heard of the Sandy Hook shooting where Emilie, 6, died alongside 19 other first-graders and six adults in December 2012.
If “disaster fatigue” is a thing — and some experts say it is — Americans have it, worn down by a recent string of natural disasters and a brutal manmade tragedy.
A girl places candles at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
But while some Americans say recent events from terror attacks to devastating hurricanes and earthquakes to mayhem in Las Vegas have them feeling off balance, University of Utah history professor Bob Goldberg notes previous generations felt the same way. The 1930s Depression rattled the national psyche. In the 1940s, World War II created deep distress. And Goldberg remembers vividly the Vietnam War era, especially 1968.
“I went into a kind of time shock because the year started with the Tet Offensive, then Lyndon Johnson said he would not seek the presidency, then the death of Martin Luther King, the death of Bobby Kennedy and then Chicago riots in August of that year. It was a period of time in which you just did not want to open the newspaper. Things were moving too quickly to wrap your mind around.”
America has lived through many challenging moments, says Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
“People talk about wars, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King. People talk about Sept. 11. There are defining moments in our lives and in our history," Gurwitch said. "The question is how to weave them into the fabric and find the strengths it takes to move forward.”
When TV broadcasts, newspaper articles and workplace conversations all center on a horrific event like Sunday’s massacre, it’s easy to forget “they’re very rare, relatively speaking,” says Eric Mankowski, psychology professor at Portland State University. “Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all firearm deaths in the U.S. happen from mass shootings. But a huge proportion of attention from the media and our discourse is devoted to those events.”
“It feels like I am afraid to turn on the news or open my computer because I’m not sure what awaits me,” says Gurwitch. “In the aftermath of (hurricane) Harvey, followed closely by Irma and Maria and now this horrific shooting in Las Vegas, our emotions become overwhelming.”
A man and child walk down street strewn with debris and downed power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. | Gerald Herbert, AP
They can be a mix of fear, anger and “even some relief I wasn’t there or the people I know are safe, or my home was spared," she said.
Having multiple simultaneous emotions is common, she says, then wonders, "How do we keep this in perspective?”
“These are normal reactions to abnormal situations,” says Susan Silk, a psychologist from Southfield, Michigan, who specializes in disaster mental health for the American Red Cross and the American Psychological Association. “This is a very big deal. A lot of people were killed doing what we are supposed to do, which is go out and have a good time.
"No one was doing anything stupid or dangerous — and a really bad thing happened. It’s understandable that people are frightened. At the same time, I guess we have to encourage people that mostly they’re safe, that you can’t hole up in your house. You have to live your life.”
She sees profound differences between manmade and natural disasters. “With manmade disaster, there is anger — a whole other level of emotionality. I responded last month to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.... There were all kinds of reactions, but none of them were anger.”
A natural disaster feels like a “random act,” though it can cause profound misery and loss, says David Derezotes, professor of social work at the University of Utah. “Hurricanes happen, and that brings a certain sense of anxiety, but when another human commits an act that causes trauma, it’s harder to make sense of things.”
Thousands of people evacuating Puerto Rico line up to get on a cruise ship in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. | Gerald Herbert, AP
“Many people are just numb, not sure what to expect and are getting battle fatigue. This is nothing new,” says Goldberg, the historian. “You could look at other periods of time where people felt they could not react or reflect because things were moving too quickly. My wife has ordered me to move away from television, move away from the news cycle and stop constantly looking at my phone to see news updates.”
Watching constant coverage is especially bad for kids. Silk remembers the 9/11 attacks and how footage of planes hitting the Twin Towers played repeatedly. “Children thought it was happening again and again," she says. "I’m not sure for adults. On some levels, maybe when we expose ourselves to it repeatedly, it makes it feel like it keeps happening.”
There is also the issue of blame. Americans like to think they can keep themselves safe, maybe sometimes even cheat death — using better medicine and safety devices, better security or fierce determination. Disasters punch a hole in that illusion. In their aftermath, there can be a tendency to demand to know how we could have prevented a tragedy or look for someone to hold responsible. It's not always helpful, but it's normal, says Derezotes. "Humans want to make sense of things."
He worries about how media discuss tragedy. “All I heard when I woke up was (the gunman) ‘killed more than 50 and it’s probably a record,’ like it was a football score. Who does that benefit?”
A woman looks over a makeshift memorial site on Las Vegas Boulevard on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. | Chris Carlson, AP
He adds, “There are 100 things that happened, by the way, folks, that were great.”
Talking to kids
The Parkers are experienced at having hard conversations with their girls. “We stay very factual, very age appropriate,” he says. "I will probably ask if they heard anything about what happened and, if so, to tell me what they heard in their own words, to get a feel for their level of understanding. I usually ask them questions. What do you think about families that had people that died or got hurt? I let them go through a process of understanding their emotions and why they’re having them.”
Experts believe children are somewhat “hard-wired” to look to parents for guidance and reassurance, says psychologist and family physician Leonard Sax, author of several books including “Boys Adrift.” But in modern culture, kids turn more to peers and social media. “But same-age peers are very fragile reeds to lean on. And social media is a performance, not a relationship at all. The result is kids who are much more fragile, less resilient, less able to draw on real reserves when bad things happen,” he says.
Parents skirt talking about disaster because they don’t want to scare their kids, Gurwitch says. But kids overhear things — and if adults don’t explain, the kids fill in gaps “in ways that are much scarier sometimes than the reality.” She says it’s important to correct misperceptions.
“I think this is the time we need to reassure those who depend on us we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. This is a good time to consider, if tragedy or a disaster struck in our community, how do we connect if separated? How do we get back together again?”
People pause at a memorial set up for victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. | John Locher, AP
She notes kids don’t worry their school will burn because they have fire drills. It reassures them.
Relationships with adults help insulate kids from scary happenings, says Dee Ray, professor and director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas in Denton. Explanations must be simple. “Someone hurt a lot of people and a lot of people are hurting from that. We are wishing well for anybody hurting in the world.”
Adds Ray, children should not be exposed to disturbing images. “Be vigilant in restricting images children see of disasters. Even with the hurricane, images are very disturbing for children.”
Adults can help teens realize the images permeating their 24/7 news cycle and social media don’t necessarily represent the world around them, says Mankowski.
“We know that more viewing of mass media is associated with greater fear about one’s life and an inaccurate view of the world in terms of how often crimes happen and what’s the probability you'll be victimized. Overestimates of those are associated with more viewing media. So I think the main thing we can do is situate these events in a reality that is accurate and not as violent as media have made it out to be,” Mankowski says.
It’s tempting but not realistic to hide under the covers, says Gurwitch. She believes this is a time to identify supports and take advantage of them, whether friends, family, neighbors, faith communities, mental health professionals or a trusted physician.
Two extremes should be avoided, says Derezotes: “Being too cautious. The fact is it’s a very low probability any of us will be physically harmed or killed in a mass murder. The other extreme is being too careless. Obviously, there are things we can all do to make our life more safe.”
Children take cues from adults, says Ray. “One way for them to be resilient is for us to be resilient. We are going to care about what’s happening and it’s going to weigh heavy on us. But we have to send word that the world is a good place filled with good people.”
She looks for helpers. “Any event that occurred, you will see amazing stories of regular people helping each other, putting life in jeopardy for someone they loved. ... That’s who we are, people who want to help each other.”
Awful events remind Derezotes to reflect on his resentments, which everyone has. He notes some people tend to blame those who are different for their own suffering. He tries not to do that.
Silk says most individuals will feel like they are heading back to normal within a few weeks. “But if at any point, you feel your reaction — your difficulty concentrating, problems with sleep, being a little bit more irritable — interfere with your ability to function, there are wonderful experts trained in evidence-based, scientifically supported treatments — for children as well as adults.”
Doing beats sitting. Action needn’t be flashy. “Do some brainstorming and take on a project that’s helpful. If you’re a member of a church group, maybe your church has an affiliated church group in an affected area. You can’t reach directly to victims in Las Vegas, but you can reach to people in your sister church community there and see what kind of support they need.”
Some of the most important advice sounds a bit heartless, says Edward F. Diener, well-being expert and professor of psychology at the University of Utah and the University of Virginia. “Don’t catastrophize. There will always be bad events occurring — always have been.” The world is not ending any more than it did during the plague when much of the population died. Millions died in World War II, too.
“Put things in perspective, not to diminish the sadness and loss, but to see it as it is. Many, many, many more die each year from the flu and car accidents,” he says.
Noting positives is important to resilience. “The hurricanes were bad,” says Diener, “but think how few actually died compared to the past. The warnings, the building codes, etc. — yes, lots of property destruction and some deaths. But way fewer than might have occurred.”
People who enjoy a meaningful life have the greatest resilience, so he says to cultivate a good one. And amid “very bad and sad events” Diener sees positives: “Look at the millions in donations, the volunteer firemen going to Puerto Rico, the overwhelming numbers giving blood in Las Vegas. We might not be able to totally avoid all disasters, although we have reduced their impact, but the sacrifices and giving of people coming forward to help is inspiring.”