Healers Reflect on Va Tech Tragedy

By Michele M. Melendez and Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

How do you make sense of the senseless?

The violence and horror that punished the campus of Virginia Tech, leaving 33 dead, is incomprehensible. Yet we yearn for some grasp of our own reactions, if not even greater understanding. Many of us will turn to trusted counselors — therapists, spiritual leaders and others we admire. Here, gathered in the tragedy's aftermath, is guidance from some of those healers.

"For the people directly hit by a tragedy like this, this is not a good time for philosophical discussions. It's time for grieving, not for explaining. It's time just to try to survive the tragedy. Reflection comes later.

"For those of us who are not directly hit, it is a chance to think together, to pray. ...

"Take a little time to feel the sadness in a meditative or prayerful way. Let that feeling flow, but in the flow of that compassion, then consider what difference I can make in alleviating suffering.

"That's a beautiful and a healing response. There's no need to feel the least bit of helplessness. There are circumstances where we're overwhelmed, but there is some freedom with which we can respond. ...

"In the Biblical tradition, we're called to respond with love, not with fear. We're called to respond with compassion and not with terror. We're called to respond with sharing the suffering. That is also a passion that moves us into action.''

— Catherine Keller, professor of theology at Drew University in Madison, N.J.


"It's a good thing to try to get a measure of control back. The most important thing is to have the experience of being heard and creating communities for people to share the uncertainty. People who are going to isolate themselves are going to have the hardest time. ...

"Those who are not directly touched by it can help by sending notes of encouragement, putting flowers on sites. Anything that helps us communicate that we care about what happened and we care about the people, and we want to make it right.''

— The Rev. Dennis Kenny, director of pastoral care at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio


"It's vicarious trauma. You watch it on television, and you really feel that you are involved in it. And it also, unfortunately, brings up the question of vulnerability. Am I vulnerable? Could this happen to me?

"There's no sense to be made out of this. I'm sorry to say that. The only comfort that you can get is by talking to other people and trying to establish a sense of security with the people that are important to you. And, to understand that the future holds many challenges and this is one of the more dire ones that we'll ever come across. ...

"The most important thing is to go on with your life, because that's the only way you're going to be able to begin to heal from the feelings that you have.''

— Patricia A. Farrell of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., psychologist and author of "How to Be Your Own Therapist: A Step By Step Guide to Taking Back Your Life''


"This is a tragedy that is manmade, human-made. One of the things that sometimes people do in this is blame the victims and say, 'They must've done something wrong to warrant this,' that this is a punishment for something that they did, by God. ...

"What I think people need, and are entitled to, is a caring response that helps them understand that there may not be clean answers.

"God doesn't let things like this happen. It depends on what your vision of God is. My vision of God is not one who micromanages every aspect of the world, that people have free will, and God is a force that sets general things in motion, gives humanity certain license, gives them teachings that if they follow those teachings things like this wouldn't happen.''

— Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in New York City


"This unbelievably horrible massacre, we are consumed with it right now because it's so outrageously unusual. If you live in certain parts of Africa, the Middle East, it's a daily occurrence.

"Look how brave these people are around the world. We have something to learn from people in Baghdad because they join the police, they want to be part of a growing democracy. Perhaps we need to learn from the people who deal with this every day and keep standing up. ...

"You have a window of time that's called your life. In that window of time you have to make something of it. That means you don't let your fears stop you. They can stop you temporarily while you adjust. You have no life if you cater to it. In the concentration camps, Jews still tried to celebrate their holidays. We have all through history people who have stood up.''

— Dr. Laura Schlessinger, international radio talk show host and nine-time New York Times bestselling author


"I don't think we will ever know why God allows something like this to happen, but he does, certainly, allow nature to take its course many, many times.

"I think that we can rely on our faith to give us hope. I think we can rely on prayer and our relationship with God as a sense of empowerment, really, to help us deal with the things that happen in the world. ...

"Part of it is that some people may go numb from the experience and don't even recognize that they're having a problem with what happened. So, sometimes, people don't experience the feelings towards a tragic event until very much after the fact. So, ideally, if people can speak about it initially and talk through their feelings about it, it certainly will help with the healing process.''

— Theresa Craig, pastoral counselor at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, Grand Rapids, Mich., and therapist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services' Walker, Mich., clinic


"We are responsible for what we do. So, we believe the (Virginia Tech shooter) is responsible for what he had done. ...

"Some people blame God and say, `Oh, God, why did God have to do this to us?' These types of incidents, like what (Oklahoma City bomber) Timothy McVeigh did, and what this guy did, this is the product of this society.

"Anybody can have access to guns and use them at their wish and then do this type of devastation. Of course, we are all saddened by this, so many innocent people got killed. But, at the same time, we don't attribute it to the act of God. ... We believe that God gave human beings the ability to choose between right and wrong.''

— Mohammad A. Rahman, board member of the Islamic Center of Portland in Beaverton, Ore.


"History's often defined by terrible events. In Judaism there is this powerful notion of 'tikkun olam,' which suggests that each individual has the ability to make a difference in the world. Our lives have meaning when we go beyond our individual needs and serve others. ...

"This kind of event reinforces people's sense of uncertainty about their lives, even the lives of their grandchildren. For people who are having difficulty in their own personal lives, this larger external event can reinforce that depression. It's important to be with people, to surround them and embrace them, and to remind them that they are cared for and their lives do have purpose.''

— Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J.


(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at michele.melendez(at)newhouse.com; Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)newhouse.com)

This story was originally published Tuesday, April 17, 2007.