The Vortex of Violence: The Columbia Mall Shooting and Beyond
To paraphrase "Ol Blue Eyes," If it can happen here...it can happen anywhere!
The Columbia Mall shooting has a personal cast for me. Not only do I live three miles from the complex, but during the football season I was there most every Sunday pulling for the Baltimore Ravens. (On a lighter note, often invaluable during serious times, last weekend, while the Ravens weren't playing in the conference championship games, the sports bar's turkey sandwich with very crisp bacon strips, slices of avocado, lettuce and tomato, add some ketchup, on dark rye with potato chips, was still a powerful draw.) Alas, many people were and will continue to be impacted by this tragedy beyond the obvious victims: first and foremost, those who saw the shootings, next those who heard the exploding sound, as well as folks scrambling for cover or those anxiously barricaded in back rooms, then employees in the Mall, shoppers who were there, future patrons who will glance nervously over their shoulders, etc.
While my observations are second-hand, a recent Critical Incident Stress Debriefing with bank tellers after a robbery by a man, possibly possessing a gun, has increased my understanding. (One of the most surprising factors gleaned - all the tellers had experienced previous bank robberies in different banks or branches; for one woman, this was her fourth incident. Over time, working for a bank without high security conditions, you may face Las Vegas odds for a traumatic experience.) And if you are already dealing with disruptive life stressors or are carrying unresolved emotions from previous losses and traumas, and you're caught in the vortex of such a violent episode, look out for psychological smoke signals. Know that chronic anxiety, disturbed sleep, moodiness, misusing substances for numbing purposes, or even panic attacks may for a period of time follow you around.
With all this in mind, here is a previous "Stress Doc"™ essay outlining how an organization or company might positively and pro-actively help people caught in the physical and psychic perimeter of critical trauma. Be safe.
Maximizing the Healing and Growth Potential of Critical/Grief Intervention:
Benefits of Structured and Spontaneous Workplace Grief Consultation
After a "loss of life" critical incident - for example, whether a valued employee "dies unexpectedly in his sleep," is "murdered outside of work," "succumbs quickly to a diagnosed or undiagnosed disease," is "killed in a horrific motor vehicle accident while driving to work," or "takes his own life," how the company or organization structures and manages the grief debriefing process is critical. It is vital to have a grief counselor/critical incident specialist: a) address employees as a whole, b) when operationally feasible and appropriate, allow the grief specialist both to formally meet with employees in a private setting and also to walk around and tactfully converse with personnel, and c) engage especially with teams or departments most closely connected with the deceased colleague.
Expecting individual employees to find their way to a room in which the critical incident-debriefing counselor is sequestered limits the personal healing as well as the professional learning, problem-detection, prevention, and growth potential. Remember, by definition, a critical incident, especially when involving the loss of life, is a "strike when the psyche (and culture) is hot" grief tragedy. That is, many people are emotionally upset or in turmoil; just about all are open to words that facilitate understanding, soothing, or healing. And a well-timed, knowledgeable, and compassionate connection has the ability both to help relieve some of the immediate pain and even to safely touch employees with preexisting wounds related to loss, threat, and trauma. A healthful or hazardous work setting just may be in the balance.
Psychologically-interpersonally wounded employees enter the workplace every day, impacting productivity, relations, morale, and overall environmental ambiance. There are major personal, team, and organizational benefits and opportunities for a company that facilitates a more open, "all hands-heads-hearts" and a "friendly grief counselor walking the halls and floors" intervention approach. Consider these "Key Workplace Grief Intervention Benefits":
1) Walk the Talk, Don't Fuel It - the organization "walks its talk" about having compassion for their employees; a company acknowledges that certain critical events take precedence over "business as usual"; not responding appropriately, for example, may open top management to speculative criticism about their actions while the employee was still alive,
2) Facilitates Expression and Acceptance - it facilitates if not the full the expression of pain at least an acceptance of grief emotions and the asking of questions about the deceased, his or her family, ways of memorializing the deceased, or supporting the family; in general, structured openness illuminates and validates the grief process,
3) Opportunity for Education and Evaluation - allowing a grief counselor to address large and small groups of people not only is an opportunity to provide grief (and perhaps mental health/illness) education, it also enables employees to check out the grief counselor; that is, is this an individual I might feel comfortable talking with individually, someone I might be willing to risk sharing my own vulnerability?; improving supervisory awareness of normative grief symptoms in contrast with signs of depression and/or disrupted work performance is a valuable diagnostic tool for identifying employees in need of additional psychological support and/or referral,
4) Identifies "Grief Ghost" Carriers - invariably, a significant percentage of employees are walking around with work-family-personal stress that drains energy and attention and/or are harboring "grief ghosts" (intense and/or unstable emotions and memories connected to past losses or traumas) that affect both productivity and the quality of work relations. When compounded by a tragic event or some kind of crisis, people already in an emotionally sensitive, uncertain, or vulnerable place are in need of and especially ripe for a "reach out and touch someone" message,
5) Potential to Reduce Hazardous Environments - in an age of workplace harassment and bullying, grief intervention has the potential for early detection of troubled individuals and/or disruptive work relations; when workplace (and community) violence routinely make headlines, prevention is your most important intervention process!
6) Receptivity for Support and Problem-Solving - people touched by mourning are often ready for momentary venting and a reassuring shoulder as well as being receptive to new problem-solving resources; e.g., after a brief one-on-one with a grief counselor, people are frequently more open to a "building stress resiliency" suggestion or life-health style change; they may seriously consider a recommendation to call an "in-house," company sponsored Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for short-term counseling,
7) Affirms a "Work Family" and Allows for Venting - in light of the close professional and often personal nature of work relations, a grief session for members of the deceased's team or department is especially vital and valuable; such a session affirms a sense of "work family" or a close-knit caring community, as individuals share personal associations or connections to the tragic loss; it helps members discover they are not alone with their jumble of emotions; people may vent their confusion or even anger at the deceased, at God, at the company, etc., and group discussion may help clear up any misunderstandings or circulating rumors, and finally,
8) Recognize and Integrate the Deceased's Strengths - with proper facilitation, a team session may encourage individuals to recognize the qualities in the deceased they particularly admired and transform this sharing into two processes that enable the spirit of the deceased to symbolically, psychically, and productively walk the workplace halls and floors:
a. Individual Identification/Integration - for example, if a team member says he admired the deceased's ability to give people undivided attention in conversation, this individual can be encouraged to practice and apply more undivided and empathic listening and questioning skills; and by doing so, the deceased's spirit more strongly lives within the individual, and
b. Collective Identification/Integration - if an entire team or department selects a variety of admired qualities to emulate and assimilate, then a "fallen soldier's" spirit truly burns not just within an individual psyche but also in the mental maps and heartbeats as well as the soulful rhythms and courageous communications of the collective consciousness.