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Survivor Pain: Victims of Gun Violence

April 28, 2023

The frequency of gun violence is much greater in the US than any other high-income country. Wherever you land on the political spectrum, it’s a fact that we experience over four times more gun deaths per 100,000 people than the next ranking country, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Over 40,000 Americans die from gun violence every year, and one million have been shot in the last decade. Whether it’s a suicide, homicide, or mass shooting, there are survivors who must live with the trauma, pain, and loss. It’s important to recognize the effects of widespread gun violence to help prevent more tragedies and help the survivors heal.

Victims of Gun Violence: Facts

empty school classroomHere are some facts about gun violence in America:

Mass shootings at movie theaters, grocery stores, and schools have threatened public life. These excruciating episodes of gun violence have even taken the lives of young children, from those at Covenant School in Nashville and Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. High schools have also seen their share of gun violence, from the shocking events at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., to those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

In recent years, shootings at the University of Virginia and Michigan State killed a number of college students. Many others — young and old — have found themselves victims of gun violence simply while shopping, going about their day, or making an honest mistake.

Nearly every American will know at least one victim of gun violence in their lifetime.

Gun violence affects all of us. Nearly every American will know at least one victim of gun violence in their lifetime. These incidents can cause grief, anxiety, fear, depression, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whether we hear about gun violence on the news or witness it ourselves, we must work through the pain and loss we experience in order to thrive mentally and emotionally.

Shootings and Survivor’s Guilt

Shootings and survivor’s guilt often go hand in hand. The experience of survivor’s guilt is becoming more prevalent as more Americans are being exposed to gun violence. According to The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, survivor’s guilt is characterized by feelings of guilt that have no connection to actual responsibility: “Survivors feel responsible for the death or injury of others, even when they had no real power or influence in the situation … Survivors often know that there is nothing they could have done to prevent the death of another, but feel guilty nonetheless.”

Survivor’s guilt is not necessarily a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); the two conditions share traits but are not the same. PTSD is characterized by symptoms like hypervigilance, anxiety, intrusive negative thoughts and memories, nightmares, and avoidance of triggers related to the event. Those who have survivor’s guilt may feel anxiety and depression in the aftermath of an event, even many months or years later. This is due to the psychological conflict of their survival, versus someone else’s loss. They may feel they have benefitted in an unfair way from events outside their control. Because they don’t understand why they survived, they may seek to make amends or make up for it, often without satisfaction, given that they bore no responsibility for the losses.

Those who have survivor’s guilt may feel anxiety and depression in the aftermath of an event, even many months or years later.

It’s important to recognize when we’re living out of perceived guilt versus actively pursuing our livelihood. Instead of trying to make up for losses that can’t be restored, those who have survivor’s guilt after a gun shooting can find solace in positive activities that help them live meaningful lives. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful in giving survivors a new paradigm that enables them to accept the past, release their perceptions of guilt, and embrace healthy living in the present.

Treatment for Survivor’s Trauma

Survivor’s trauma can be life-disrupting, especially after gun violence or a mass casualty event where the survivor’s life was in imminent danger. Sometimes trauma is not recognized until later; it can gradually increase in severity until it becomes difficult to sleep, interact with others, go out in public, or maintain a normal schedule. With therapy and treatment, trauma can be resolved, and those who have survived gun violence can learn how to thrive in their lives again.

At Rio Retreat Center, we offer workshops that help survivors heal from their trauma and grief. Our Survivors I workshop explores the origins of self-defeating behaviors and enables those who are “stuck” to let go of painful experiences and find freedom. Our Mending Heartwounds workshop helps those dealing with emotional trauma and grief to reconnect with themselves and process their pain effectively. If you have questions, contact us today to learn more about how we can help you thrive again.