In 1996 I was an undergraduate student of psychology, when a young blonde-haired man took a boot-load of rifles to Port Arthur and killed 35 and injured 23 of my fellow Tasmanians and visitors to our beautiful, peaceful island. I remember the shock and disbelief as I watched events unfold on television. Much of the day was spent worrying, hoping, praying, not knowing. Who survived? Who didn’t? Who did it?
Helicopters flew in a constant stream to the hospital in our capital city, Hobart. The thrub, thrub, thrub of their blades a grim soundtrack. In my mind’s eye I see myself sitting in a darkened room with a small red television set on top of a packing crate. We sat in a silence broken only by intermittent telephone calls to friends who may have been on the Tasman Peninsula that day. We worried how their children would react.
Dear Parkland …
I write this today, reflecting with such a heavy heart on the fear and worry that I know the residents of Parkland, Florida have felt in recent days. The horror and the anger and the countless questions. How could this happen? Why couldn’t we stop it? Whose fault is it?
Here in Tasmania, we asked the same questions in April 1996. It was such a shock to have something so seemingly alien happen in our little pocket of peace at the bottom of the world. I can’t possibly imagine the pain and fear you and you compatriots feel after seeing these acts of community terrorism happen again, and again, and again.
How do you find hope for the future of your wonderful country? Where do you place your faith and trust? How do you face the day with renewed positivity and courage. Because you know you have to, right?
You can recover … Don’t be afraid to ask for help
In the years since the Port Arthur incident, I have known personally and professionally many survivors, bereaved family members, and traumatised witnesses. I have met people who have had to live with over 20 years of “it should have been me”. And of course I still live with my own memories of that awful day.
For the bereaved in Parkland, I offer you peace and my sincerest condolences. I hope you will find support among family, friends, and your broader community. If you find over time that the grief and the horror is still too much, I hope you will seek help. There are no rules to grieving and there are no deadlines. Take a break from the media coverage, talk to those closest to you, and if you start to hear yourself saying “I should be over this by now”, go gently, be kind to yourself, and seek professional help.
For the traumatised witnesses, I wish you calm and I wish you a smooth recovery. You are grieving too, and this can cloud your recovery process. That’s to be expected. Finding solace in your usual routines can help. Be kind to yourself as you go through this process. I hope you will have as much support as you need, and that you will seek professional help if you are struggling. It’s okay to need help, in fact it’s normal.
To the emergency service workers and first responders, please know that your community appreciates all that you have done. Your needs can sometimes be overlooked in the fog of so much horror and grief. Don’t be afraid to seek the support that you need to overcome this horrific event. You do not need to suffer in silence, in fact I hope you will find your voice and ask for help if you need it.
The Australian Psychological Society offers a free tip sheet on how to cope after Community Violence. You can download it here.
How do we talk to our kids about this …
Finding the peace and calm to face your children’s questions can be difficult. Children may have lots of questions, or they may shut down and ask none at all. Try to approach your children’s questions from a place of honesty and hope. Encourage your children to talk if they want to, allow them to ask questions, be honest if you don’t have the answers. Remind them that talking about difficult things can help. Allow them to explore their feelings through play, if that is how they process things. Remind children that for every “bad guy” in the community, there are thousands and thousands of “good guys”. Point out the first responders, the emergency services personnel, the volunteer organisations, and even the politicians agitating for change. Be mindful of how much exposure children have to the news media and adult conversations. Be patient if their questions are repetitive; it’s their way of processing “big” information.
The Australian Psychological Society has produced a tip sheet with other helpful suggestions for talking to children about community violence. You down download that here.
And lastly, I address this to you, Dear America …
I will add this last message to you, America, and I choose my words carefully because this is a sensitive issue and you are grieving.
As an Australian, I know the hope that was built on the foundation of our own radical gun reforms post-Port Arthur. I know the faith that was restored to our communities by that courageous action by our government of the day. I know it requires constant vigilance against complacency, and I know that sectors of your community will vehemently disagree. But at the end of the day, is resisting change the mature solution?
America, you inspire so much in the world. You are like the big sister we all wish we could be. But now the world begs you to take control of your gun violence. We respectfully ask you to explore any gaps in access to mental health treatment. And we humbly invite you to participate in the global need for dismantling the stigmatising attitudes that prevent those in need, in pain, or in anger from seeking help.
Be the leaders the rest of us know you to be. Be the people with fists raised in the air crying “no more”. The world needs to see you effect peace in your own backyard. Because if you can’t, or you won’t, what message does that send? What message does that give your own children?
Don’t lose hope in your ability to effect change. Keep the faith in your wonderful country and in each other burning as brightly as the candles in Parkland tonight.
Stay courageous. We’re all here for you.
In the meantime, I send you my wishes for peace, my sincere condolences, and so much love.