How Do People Recover from an Orlando?

Survivors of previous terror attacks and other devastation have lessons for us all

by Kristen Fischer | Updated 17 Jun 2016 at 10:51 AM

CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers this week ISIS is such a growing threat that the Orlando terror attacks and the attacks in San Bernardino, California, last December, may be inspiring similar attacks by sympathizers.

Mason Wells, of Sandy, Utah, was in Boston, Paris, and Brussels during all three terror attacks.

The Islamic State, he added, is exploring ways to send operatives to the West via refugee flows, smuggling routes, and other types of travel, Reuters reported. Lone-wolf terrorist attacks, especially, are “an exceptionally challenging issue for the intelligence community,” said Brennan.

The words are far from comforting for anyone directly impacted by the Orlando terror strike on U.S. soil — but the families and friends of the 49 people killed and 27 still hospitalized by a lone gunman aren’t alone in their struggles to make sense of this. The whole country has concerns about terrorism for the future.

It brought a lot of “fresh feelings and memories,” said Mason Wells of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Wells, of Sandy, Utah, is the young man who was in Boston, Paris, and Brussels during all three terror attacks. He was near the blast in Boston when his mother was running the marathon, a few hours away when the attack in Paris occurred, and was wounded by a bomb in the Brussels attack.

“I was very saddened by the news that there was a shooting in Orlando,” Wells told LifeZette in an exclusive interview. “These atrocities shouldn’t happen and it’s a horrible thing to see a person’s hate carried out on such an extreme level.”

Recovery is an ongoing process for everyone. But with the potential for other attacks, what can we learn from those who have gone through the worst and come out OK, on the other side?

For starters, the kind of grief the victims' families and friends are dealing with is more complicated than typical grief, said Dr. Katherine O'Neill, a retired clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member at North Dakota State University. O'Neill served as mental health volunteer after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"It has the potential elements of trauma as well as grieving — as well as perhaps more intense emotions of anger and fear," she said. She added that people don't have to live in Orlando or be connected to a victim to be impacted.

"It's normal to feel a wide range of emotions, from intense feelings to numbness," said one psychologist.

"People can experience those things vicariously simply by hearing about it," she said. "It's normal to feel a wide range of emotions, from intense feelings to numbness."

Most will recover on their own, but some may not. Those consistently incapacitated with grief or anxiety weeks down the road from trauma should seek help. Leaning heavy on one's faith, attending a vigil, speaking to a counselor — all can bring comfort and support. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are otherwise very real risks, O'Neill said.

Limiting news coverage of devastating events, especially for children, is also important. Too much exposure — especially without a parent to explain it — creates unnecessary stress, said Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist and professor at Duke University who studies the impacts of terrorism on children.

"We need to be mindful about the media coverage we expose ourselves to," she said. That doesn't mean taking a break from TV to read what people are saying about an attack on social media. Instead, go for a walk or play with a pet, she suggested.

John R. Tassey, coordinator of disaster response for the Oklahoma Psychological Association in Norman, Oklahoma, said disasters and terror attacks often trigger a spontaneous expression of resilience, such as vigils and memorials. At these events, people tend to talk about the event and other factors, which helps their recovery.

Social media can also connect people with resources and support, and should not be underestimated. "It's not a 'one-size-fits-all' approach, and people uniquely recover at a different pace," Tassey told LifeZette.

If survivors from the Orlando attack choose to be hopeful instead of bitter, it will make a big difference in their recovery, said one victim.

First responders, clergy, and media professionals need to make sure they're taking care of themselves when terror strikes as well, said Dr. Kermit Crawford, a psychologist and executive director of the Center for Multicultural Mental Health at Boston Medical Center. He counseled people after the Boston Marathon terror attack and responded at Logan International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001.

He said one thing becomes apparent after previous attacks: First responders specifically need to limit the time they spend working with trauma victims and take shorter shifts. That helps sustain their ability to provide stable support.

"The physicians worked around the clock," Crawford recalled of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath. "Whether you feel like it or not, you have to come off. It's not selfish — it's just the reality."

"Taking care of yourself is one of the big lessons people need to do to be resilient," O'Neill added. "And it's one of the hardest lessons."

Related: Terrorism's Toll on the American Psyche

Wells is not fully recovered from injuries he incurred in Brussels: a ruptured Achilles tendon, shrapnel injuries, and burns on his face and hands. Still, he understands what people in Orlando are enduring and knows what it will take for them to move forward.

"I have learned, for myself at least, that by making a conscious decision not to be bitter and by believing that my own future will still be bright, I am able to put off the anger, the fear, the other negative feelings that events like this evoke," Wells said.

Wells thinks if survivors from the Orlando attack choose to be hopeful, not bitter, it will make a big difference in their recovery.

"If they're open with others and honest with themselves, they'll be able to put off any post-traumatic stress disorder and may even look back and see this event has allowed them to develop a greater empathy for others than any other event ever could," Wells said. "God helps those who sincerely ask for His help, and I believe he's at the door for any person in Orlando who knocks."

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