DAY 13: The Trauma Changes You

We continue our reflection on God’s call to us through the ELCA’s “60-Day Journey Toward Justice in a Culture of Gun Violence.”

DAY 13: The trauma changes you

On November 7, 2018, the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.—a popular meeting place for university students, including those from nearby California Lutheran University—joined the growing national list of public spaces haunted by mass shootings.

Thirteen people died, including the perpetrator and a police officer.

Desta Ronning Goehner, a member of the CLU staff, rolled over in bed late that night and saw her phone light up. “I had the feeling God or the Spirit was waking me up,” said Ronning, “and I saw a bunch of texts from students and people saying ‘I’m OK! I’m OK!’ or ‘Have you checked on this person or that person?’ I wondered what was going on, and then I started piecing it together. My phone rang, and it was a local clergy friend of mine. She said there was a shooting at Borderline and that we needed to go there. … That night changed me.

“It’s almost been six months, and there’s something I’m learning about trauma and compassion fatigue that usually happens around the six-month mark, where people in communities begin to realize that they’re not OK, when they’ve been thinking that they were probably OK.

“If somebody came to Thousand Oaks or California Lutheran now, you probably wouldn’t even know or hear about the shooting in most conversations. I’m trying to figure that whole thing out. It’s changed me, and I haven’t talked a lot about it outwardly—with other people.

“That night was really hard. I was changed, my family was changed, Cal Lutheran was changed, the community was changed. But if you come here, you probably wouldn’t know that it had happened.

“The other thing I’m learning is, we had this shooting and then we also had, within 24 hours, the wildfires. I don’t think there’s a lot of data on trauma where people have had two traumas like a natural disaster and a man-made trauma in the same time frame. I think we’re a little bit of a test case. The fires kind of stole our ability to deal with the fear and anger of the shooting—there was so much fear about the fires and people were having to evacuate.

“For about a week to a week and a half, everywhere you went, you saw people driving with the cars loaded up with all of their stuff. And people who lost loved ones at the Borderline also had to evacuate. Can you imagine losing someone you love in that way and then, within 24 hours, having to pack up your house where you have all of your memories, including packing up the room and all of the memories of the loved one you lost?

“It’s been hard for me to figure out how to use my voice publicly to share my experience.”

How do you move forward and continue to care?

“I feel like I’m going to have to use my voice, though,” Ronning said. “I’m struck by how much of our world just moved on so quickly after this. … Nobody is still checking in with us, asking, ‘How are you doing now?’

People just kind of move on, and everybody has their own stuff to deal with, but I think that I have to talk about it because I’m realizing that this is what happens to other people, not just related to gun violence, but all sorts of trauma: the rest of us move on, but it’s still affecting people, families and communities, and we start to ignore it. I think that makes trauma worse.”

Ronning is still working at and seeking ways to be attentive and present for students who continue to be affected, whose raw emotions resurface, often unexpectedly. “I’ve met with many students, and so have lots of other staff,” she said. “We’ve met with students, faculty, and staff to just sit and listen to them and give them space to talk about where they’re at and what they’re feeling and thinking.

“I try to ask questions or reflect back to them what I’ve heard them say. And I’m trying to follow up on a regular basis, so they know that I haven’t forgotten about them. I have an alarm set on my phone and in my calendar to check in with people so that I’m not forgetting. I’ve moved to this place, with some people, of saying you don’t have to respond, but if and when you want to, you can, so that they don’t feel pressured. I’ve also been saying, ‘Just give me a number between one and ten about how you are right now or whenever you feel like responding—ten is excellent and one is, today is horrible.’ They can call or text me, and that helps me know that, if they are a three today and last week they were a seven, I may need to try to get them more help or

Ronning reminds us that many people, especially families and young people, will never be the same after a tragedy such as this. And the trauma and impact ripples out into the world and lingers, taking its toll along the way. What we can do is listen, be attentive to mental health issues, be present, be patient, and not forget those who are suffering in perceptible and unseen ways. And, we can learn to use our voices and every means possible to change what’s going on, to reduce and end the gun violence that is shattering our communities.

From a conversation with Desta Ronning Goehner, director of congregational relations, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, Calif. Ronning is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, has served on the staff of the Southwest California Synod, and is a trained and certified spiritual director.