The Crippling Anxieties for Parents after School Shootings

Written by Ashley Klein

Like parents across America today, I am gutted. Emotionally and physically sick. Unable to fall asleep last night in the wake of the darkness and unable to quickly move forward today with the fear in my heart. I drive to work with a lump in my throat and tears down my cheeks. I know that leaving work early today to pick up my 5-year-old daughter Palmer isn’t a luxury. For me, it’s an emotional necessity.

As I start my morning, I feel thankful that my nursing tasks consist of only one patient visit with the rest of my time being administrative work. I am grateful to not be forced into hearing anyone speak of this tragedy as I try to understand how my mind will begin to process it. The hours pass and the heaviness lifts in waves, crashing back each time I open my social media accounts. The logical part of my brain tells me to shut out the bad news. My heart is racing, and I know that blocking the devastating events from my mind is what my body needs. But my emotional side so deeply wants to connect with others feeling the same way. Somewhere deep down I also feel a ping of guilt when I look away. The parents who lost their children this week cannot look away. I shouldn’t be allowed to either.

I finish early and head to pick her up. Having several hours of unscheduled time, I tell her to pick anywhere she wants for lunch. She tells me that nothing sounds as yummy as Chick-fil-A so I head there without question. Her high-pitched voice fills my car in a constant, excited chatter. She dreams of being 12 years old and reminds me how she will learn to ride a horse one day. Her words are still rounding the corner of pronunciation and I’m painfully aware that her “yittles” will be very grown-up littles before summer’s end. 

We walk into the restaurant and find our place in line behind two older women who plan to split their order of fries. Behind us is a boy in his late teens or early 20’s. His appearance is grungy, and he is dressed in all black. In a very heightened state of fear, anxiety, and second-hand grief, I am hyper-aware. One small reach towards his pocket delivers only his cell phone, but my heart is already pounding. I physically shake my head from side to side and kneel down to ask Palmer what she wants to eat. I am the last person on earth who would every judge someone’s choice of fashion, hair, lifestyle, etc. But today my adrenaline is on auto drive, and everyone feels threatening. 

Her happiness makes me feel physically sick. Her bright brown eyes haven’t a clue what I’m harboring today, and my stomach continues to clench. Looking at her messy brown hair and her crooked headband, I hold back tears as the lump finds its place back to my throat. A familiar feeling today. I let her choose a table but when she picks the one right near the front door, I feel myself getting anxious that we aren’t tucked in the back.

I watch and analyze every person who crosses the door’s threshold, all while remembering to put on a smile and chat about upcoming summer events. Every single male who doesn’t immediately strike me as perfectly safe sends a riveting feeling down my spine and my heart picks up. A group of young, athletic black men? Safe. Mass shooters don’t usually travel in groups, and these guys seem to be laughing. A disheveled woman digging for her wallet? Also safe. Women aren’t usually the shooter. A young white man with a mask on? Semi-safe. His clothing choice seems unruly, but he cares enough to wear a mask so maybe he is not a threat. A middle-aged white man with a blank stare? Absolutely not safe. My eyes dart to his hands. But his children begin to shuffle behind him, and I relax. 

By this point, I am in an absolute spiral. Palmer asks to go to the play place and I oblige, happy for a distraction. While sitting on the bench watching her, someone opens the outside door creating a suction and slamming the play place door. I jump, jittering my hands and nearly dropping my wallet. Again, I physically shake my head side to side to snap myself out of this state. I am relieved to my core when it’s time to head home. 

I am fully aware that my anxiety is out of control, but I can’t be helped today. I don’t want to be helped. I want to sit in these feelings and never forget them. It’s the month of May which means schools will be out soon. America gets a break from school shootings for three whole months and the majority of the population will slide quietly back into normal life. I truly believe humans were created to learn to forget trauma. Without this defense mechanism, we might never move on or live life without crippling sadness and anxiety. I believe our bodies do it to help us get by. Even something as terrible as this won’t be as fresh or painful in a month. That thought scares me more than others. 

The days pass. I donate money. I text numbers. I call and send letters to the appropriate parties feeling sure my voice is doing nothing. I watch students and parents protesting. I see politicians passing blame or even worse, saying with certainty that nothing can be done. Each day that passes leaves me feeling a sadness that time is taking away the urgency. My days waver in and out of this uncertainty. A few forgetful hours has me flying high until the pit in my stomach reminds me that no matter how many ways my brain tries to twist it, I feel I cannot protect my own children in this world. 

I look and scroll for hours. Perhaps I’m looking for answers. Each time a celebrity speaks out, I feel hopeful that maybe they will be the ones to promote change. But even their words and posts will fade with time. I see politicians and political parties beginning debates over gun laws and mental health. I feel confused, sad, and completely powerless remembering how incredibly hard it is to get anything changed in America. 

I won’t lie and say this blog post contains a conclusion that will provide any answers or comfort. What I will do is quote the only comforting words I have read all week. These words come from the Instagram of @mombrain.therapist. She says:

“To live our lives and send our kids out into the world each day, we push these thoughts down a bit, just to keep ourselves moving. But each time we hear about these school shootings, the thoughts get louder for a bit. Reminding us of that lingering fear lurking in the background of everyday life….that this could happen to any one of our families here in the US. In the coming days while thoughts of the unimaginable pain of the parents of 19 children and 2 adults (who were also someone’s children) are still fresh in your mind, I encourage you, if you can, to find ways to channel whatever feelings you’re having into something.”

She goes on to remind us that if we were so lucky to be parents on the outside of this tragedy, taking action is the best way to help with the unimaginable grief for those on the inside of it. That is our gift to them. So, although I don’t have an exact answer for how I will get past the feelings I have, I know what I won’t do. I won’t do nothing. 

If this is heavy on your heart, if you’ve cried over the course of the past few weeks imagining what happened to those children, if you’ve held your own kids tighter, if your stomach has been in knots, or if you just feel trapped in these feelings, don’t do nothing. Below is a list I have created to help if you do not know where to start.

  1. Donate to the families in Texas HERE
  2. Donate to Everytown HERE, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.
  3. Volunteer at a youth organization (Big Brothers Big Sisters, local churches, or local organizations for underprivileged children). Many of the people who commit these heinous crimes come from broken family systems.
  4. Write or call your elected officials. Don’t stop. Also, do your homework before voting. If ending gun violence is important to you, vote accordingly. 
  5. Teach your kids that bullying is absolutely unacceptable. 
  6. Teach your kids (and yourself) to speak up if something they see on social media doesn’t seem right. Make sure they know there will be no repercussions when doing so.
  7. Similar to above, teach them to speak up if a fellow student’s behavior doesn’t feel right.
  8. If you believe that mass shootings are fully a mental health issue, find out about mental health services being offered in your area. Volunteer. Donate. Ask questions. Push back.

Anything is better than doing nothing and waiting for the next time. If we don’t act, we may not always be so lucky to be parents on the outside of gun violence.


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