Earlier this week, Stephen Paddock, for reasons that remain unknown, opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel room, killing at least 58 people and wounding hundreds more. Sandy Phillips was immediately on her way. As Julie Beck reports for The Atlantic, Phillips’ daughter Jessica was killed in the Aurora, Colorado, shooting in 2012. Since then, she’s been living on the road, visiting American cities after mass shootings—Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando and now Las Vegas.
As the leader of a nonprofit group named in honor of her daughter, Phillips and other volunteers regularly travel to cities that have recently experienced mass shootings. The goal is to offer support to those affected by these tragedies: meet with victims and their families, make calls or run errands for them or just hold their hands.
Like the psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow, author of Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections, recently told Thrive Global, trauma (like the kind that mass shooting victims’ families experience) changes you. Phillips’ work promotes survivor to survivor connections, allowing for a degree of empathy that you can’t find in people who haven’t gone through the same thing.
Caren Teves, who lost a son in the Aurora shooting, tells Beck that she’s regularly in touch with hundreds of other survivors of mass shootings and families of victims. “There’s an unspoken understanding that no one else really can give you,” she says. “There’s no words that even need to be spoken. It is a very unique situation that we’re in, but all too common. I call us the unfortunate family of gun-violence survivors. And unfortunately, our family keeps growing every day.”
A lot of the support happens over various Facebook groups and direct messages, Beck reports. It’s a beautiful use of social media, really: people who would otherwise be isolated can find each other and the support they need. This empathy, mental health professionals say, is key to approaching trauma: we need people who can meet us where we are. “It is an enormous challenge to find safe places to express the pain of trauma,” the pioneering psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. That’s “why survivor groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous, and other support groups can be so critical,” van der Kolk writes. “Finding a responsive community in which to tell your truth makes recovery possible.”
When people go through something horrific—abuse, war, losing someone they love—they need what Stolorow calls a “relational home.” It’s a matter of providing a place where the pain can just be. “It doesn’t lessen the pain,” he says. “In fact, in a way it could increase the pain, because it has a place where it’s allowed to be, and where it could be shared.” Grief, he says, is actually a form of loving; it’s the form love takes when a loved one has died. With a support group, there are people who can provide that relational home for one another, allowing that pain to have a place where it can be expressed, held, seen, validated. Rather than getting erased, it can be made into part of who you are; like Krista Tippett told Thrive, “Wisdom emerges through how what goes wrong becomes integrated into your sense of your own wholeness.”