Newtown/Sandy Hook: SE Support for a Community in Grief

by | Dec 11, 2013 | About Trauma

Somatic Experiencing® principles applied to a community are as magical as when applied to a person. Resonance, containment, self regulation, titration, and intent are precursors to community resilience and healing. As you move slowly with a person, intervene slowly and mindfully with a community, especially one overwhelmed with trauma. Sensitivity to the community nervous system is especially important around anniversary dates when a spotlight on community resources is essential.

It's been almost a year now— December 14, 2012— parents were busy preparing for the holiday season, children were dreaming of Christmas trees and Hanukkah lights … when their world changed forever. For those first hearing of it, the air was thick with horror, grief, and pain. I was online, ordering Christmas gifts, when an email from Dr. Peter Levine popped up in a little box on the lower right corner of my computer screen. Dr. Levine's email was asking me and my fellow SE® practitioners: “What are you Easterners doing about Newtown?” For me, that was the beginning.

People from all over the country flocked to Newtown. At times it felt almost intrusive so we focused on containing the community and held the mantra, “slower is faster and less is more.” But we knew we would be needed once early groups left. A particularly difficult time for children was the departure of healing dogs from the school. The nurturing of these dogs had helped soften reality. We connected with community leaders, physicians, first responders, the principal, and child therapists; we let them know we were there if needed. SE principles guided us.

Our client was the Newtown community. Our goal: establish a resonance with the community. Our intent: stay calm and resonant with each other, so that our group could serve as a container for Newtown. This was effective. Physicians and therapists invited us to speak at large gatherings and consult about challenging patients. Referrals increased. SE was associated with children, families, first responders, and teachers, all of whom were doing better. SE has developed a positive voice in Newtown.

During our Beginning I session in August, Mark Olsen (an SE assistant and captain in a fire department) visited the Sandy Hook firehouse. This was the spot where parents first met to find news of their children on that tragic day last December. The Resiliency Center, a new organization funded to coordinate community healing, invited Mark and others to join a potluck community event at the firehouse to memorialize what they have all been through. SE Steering Committee members attended two days of trauma education with other dedicated therapists from the community and will join them in an additional holiday event.

Our efforts are continuing into the future. Chris Morrow, Val Candela, Rosetta Rhodes, and Rita Hayes connected with me to form Supporting Newtown Steering Committee. SE Board member Peter Taylor joined us as our SE Trauma Institute liaison. We met often then (Skype made it possible) and now we conduct monthly meetings. Firmly entrenched, the first Connecticut SE training has begun. Student-run study groups are blossoming. In the week before the first anniversary of the tragedy, SE faculty member Ariel Giarretto will be teaching SE Beginning II not far from Newtown. The steering committee and Ariel will have dinner with students of the class— including Newtown therapists and first responders— to honor what we have shared together. The SE Trauma Institute has granted complimentary tuition for selected first responders in nearby communities.

We developed the website supportingnewtown.org for parents and teachers to learn about trauma and how to help children who have been exposed to it. As the first year anniversary nears, community activation is stirred by gossip, blame, and second guessing in news reports flashing across TV screens. The Steering Committee supports healthy, normal activities— like tree lightings— as a community resource to be enjoyed and treasured for what they are: celebrations of light and life in the darkness of winter. We are focusing on community strengths, parents taking children to Disney World, and art therapists organizing an exhibit of artwork by Sandy Hook children to be displayed in the Connecticut State Capital (and supported by Governor Malloy).

Through our website, 25 SEPs from around the country volunteered to Skype and teach parents, teens, and first responders the journey to resiliency. They donated 40 hours education/consultation to parents and therapists working with Newtown children. Nine SEPs contributed 102 hours of education at Sandy Hook meetings for parents, children, and professionals. Seven SEPs donated over 460 hours of SE and SE bodywork to 65 clients in Newtown. Work was done with first responders, educators, and health providers, while classes were given to nursery school teachers. SE has a healing presence in Newtown.

It feels important for us to avoid reacting to media activities and reports that intensify community nervous system activation. Intention is foremost as we focus on containing Newtown/Sandy Hook in a spacious, calm, resonant, loving, and non-judgmental container to support natural/organic healing of the community.

Dr. Mary Giuffra, PhD has been a therapist for over 35 years. She is an SE senior assistant, a New York State licensed marriage and family therapist, a board certified clinical specialist in psychiatric mental health, and a New York State registered professional nurse. Previously on this blog, she was interviewed about using SE in couples therapy.