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Lighting a Candle in Newtown: Page 2 of 2

Lighting a Candle in Newtown: Page 2 of 2

On July 22, 2011, Norway experienced immeasurable loss and trauma when a lone, angry individual killed over 70 innocent people in a planned dual attack. Many of the victims were young teenagers attending a Youth League event. Immediately after, there was a remarkable and courageous response, much like that of Newtown.5 The post-tragedy reflections of the medical first responders were focused on collective responses of “strong engagement and feelings of togetherness.”6 It was very important to them at the time “to be compassionate and caring,” in addition to enduring “the pain of others, without having a solution.”7 The Norwegian psychiatric professionals understood clearly how to assist with the early signs of acute stress and unbearable grief. In particular, they knew that one of their most valuable contributions would be “to listen,” and help survivors “find new strength and meaning in a changed life.”8

There were many Newtown teachers in the audience who demonstrated a strong interest in being a part of the healing and recovery process. Teachers have a profound effect on the lives of their students and can create positive, transforming possibilities for them.9 The Newtown teachers were impressive, and several spoke about ways that they had been serving as a support system for students, assuming this role with profound determination.

Like physicians, they were committed to the best interests of those they were trying to assist. Indeed, teachers are valuable, cost-effective providers for clinically informed interventions after mass trauma and disaster.10,11 The teachers of Newtown reminded me of one of my favorite quotes attributed to Lee Iacocca: “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.”

The audience wondered about how best to reach out to show support for families of victims, and—in a memorable display of compassion—to the family members of the offender. Here, David Kaczynski spoke with great authority and empathy, giving a helpful and insightful answer that concluded with, “We will always love our family members, but we detest what they did.”

Resilience and healing after severe trauma
After the formal question-and-answer session, the audience expressed great interest in the concept of resilience.12 Quite a few in the audience had discerning questions about how one might successfully adapt and avoid psychological incapacitation, especially so that one might serve as a support for others. Resilience has been associated with an enduring capacity for positive emotion and generative experiences. There does not appear to be a single “resilient type” of person. Rather,13,14 there are likely multiple and unexpected ways for survivors of trauma to develop resilience.

Fortunately, resilience may be more prevalent than previously believed.15 In the wake of horrendous tragedy, peoples’ belief systems may change. For example, they may experience changes to their view of the world “as they knew it,” and their views on human nature, spirituality, and their own identity. A grieving process of variable length is a necessity, yet many will still need to assimilate new values.16 Resilient survivors may cope, in part, by developing new principles and beliefs in order to achieve emotional equipoise. They may also find a way to turn the trauma into a “psychic reorganizer,” whereby the trauma becomes the stimulus and opportunity for some type of highly personal, positive change.

The people of Newtown impressed upon me their interest in hearing how the rest of the country and the world view them as the epitome of strength, resilience, and compassion. They made it clear that they did not want to be viewed as helpless victims. Later, as I read back over the Sandy Hook Promise, I realized more fully how central this issue was for the community: “To do everything in our power to be remembered—not as the town filled with grief and victims; but as the place where real change began.”

The Newtown community had known from the beginning what they needed to do, and were well along the path of establishing a sense of efficacy and optimism. They had quickly realized that striving for these goals by creating their own mission of healing was of vital importance.17 This is why I thought it so fitting that Lama Yeshe chose an epigraph, attributed to Confucius, as the opening to the presentation: “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”



1. The Sandy Hook Promise. http://www.sandyhookpromise.org. Accessed April 16, 2013.
2. “Violence, Loss and Emotional Healing: A Buddhist Perspective,” March 13 At Adath Israel. Newtown Bee. March 1, 2013. http://newtownbee.com/news/news/2013/03/01/violence-loss-and-emotional-healing-buddhist-persp/6291. Accessed April 16, 2013.
3. Vicary AM, Fraley RC. Student reactions to the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University: Does sharing grief and support over the internet affect recovery? Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010;361:1555-1563.
4. Hobfoll S, Watson P, Bell CC, et al. Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry. 2007;70:283-315.
5. Sollid SJ. When worst comes to worst—the long road home. Tidsskr Nor Legeforen. 2011;131:1748.
6. Thrana F. Endure the pain of others. Tidsskr Nor Legeforen. 2011;131:1747-1748.
7. Haug C. Reflections. Tidsskr Nor Legeforen. 2011;131:1739.
8. Dyb G. Lean forward and be there. Tidsskr Nor Legeforen. 2011;131:1751-1752.
9. Gillespie M. Student-teacher connection: a place of possibility. J Adv Nurs. 2005;52:211-219.
10. Wolmer L, Hamiel D, Barchas JD, et al. Teacher-delivered resilience-focused intervention in schools with traumatized children following the second Lebanon War. J Trauma Stress. 2011;24:309-316.
11. Wolmer L, Hamiel D, Laor N. Preventing children's posttraumatic stress after disaster with teacher-based intervention: a controlled study. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011;50:340-348.
12. Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Front Behav Neurosci. 2013;7:10.
13. Bonanno G. Resilience in the Face of Potential Trauma. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2005;14:135-138.
14. Agaibi CE, Wilson JP. Trauma, PTSD and resilience: a review of the literature. Trauma Violence Abuse. 2005;6:195-216.
15. Bonanno GA, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, Vlahov D. Psychological resilience after disaster: New York City in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack. Psychol Science. 2006;17:181-186.
16. Jordan K. What we learned from 9/11: a terrorism grief and recovery process model. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention. 2005;5:340-355.
17. Grills-Taquechel AE, Littleton HL, Axsom D. Social support, world assumptions, and exposure as predictors of anxiety and quality of life following a mass trauma. J Anxiety Disord. 2011;25:498-506.

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