Childhood Trauma

An expert response team and Unitarian Universalist beliefs help children at the church shooting start to heal

Since July 27, Annette Mendola has heard the question innumerable times. "It's very poignant," she says. "People keep asking, ‘How will you ever feel safe in that church again?' and ‘How will you ever feel safe letting your child out of your sight again?'"

Mendola, who teaches philosophy at the University of Tennessee, was present with her husband, John Nolt, during the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) July 27 that left two dead and six severely wounded. Her daughter, Évora Kreis, 10, was one of the cast waiting to perform Annie Jr. when gunman Jim Adkisson opened fire—and she's one of the many children from the cast, church audience, and TVUUC congregation who are top priority as the church counsels victims and begins its healing process.

The concerns for children in this situation are summed up in a guide by the National Institute for Mental Health, Trauma Response Resources for Families and Congregations, featured prominently on the Leaders' portion of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation (UUA) website long before this tragedy unfolded.

"One common response is a loss of trust," says the guide. "Another is fear of the event recurring... Young children's reactions are strongly influenced by parent reactions. Children age 6 to 11 may isolate themselves... become irritable or disruptive... develop unfounded fears, become depressed, become filled with guilt, feel numb emotionally, do poorly with school...

"Adolescents may feel guilty. They may feel guilt for not preventing injury or deaths. They also may have thoughts of revenge."

Children will need assistance to feel safe again and to make sense of what they've seen and heard. This process should begin at the scene of the event, says the NIMH guide—which is just what happened, notes TVUUC religious education director Brian Griffin. "The police required us to stay in the building as they began their investigation," he says. "At first that seemed frustrating, but I used the time to move children back into their Sunday School rooms, into a safe and familiar space. The sweet, innocent children of the church were again together, surrounded by love, and they were immediately visited by loving church members and by trained counselors who happened to be in the building. TVUUC is lucky to have in its membership several outstanding professionals trained in psychology and counseling, and this was set up within an hour of the shooting."

A week later, the kids became the primary focus in planning for the Aug. 3 rededication ceremony of the church, says Meagan Henry, director of religious education at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, Va.—and up until the summer of 2006, Youth Programs Coordinator for TVUUC. "To open a UU service, we have a chalice lighting. For this, we decided that the best chalice-lighting words would be the children's, which aren't usually said in the adult service. We wanted them to have a sense of security from the familiar."

Those words go, in part, "Ours is the church of the open mind / Ours is the church of the helping hand / Ours is the church of the loving heart."

"Standing up on the stage, looking out during that ceremony, I saw a lot of teenagers in the front pews looking straight at me, saying those words. They grew up in the church hearing and saying those words," she says.

Along with such rituals, TVUUC members, including the youngest, have received assistance from the Red Cross, who were on the scene quickly after the shooting and are with them still, notes Griffin.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation's Trauma Response Ministry (UUTRM), an organization gathered in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, also quickly weighed in. "Within 20 minutes of the shooting, we were working with the UUTRM to fly their highly trained trauma specialists to Knoxville from their homes all over the country," says Griffin.

Susan Suchoki Brown of First Church Unitarian Universalist of Leominster, Mass., was part of UUTRM that arrived in Knoxville last Monday. Also a chaplain with a volunteer fire department, Suchoki Brown, who served as incident commander last week, worked with UUTRM at Ground Zero and says she's been at "many, many disasters."

"This is the same in that it's a tragedy, an event of magnitude," she says. "But it's also different, in that one doesn't expect to have their church, their sanctuary, violated by a shooter."

Suchoki Brown says that even the youngest children who were present "know something like this is not supposed to happen" and those who aren't old enough to fully articulate their feelings will need lots of play therapy, designed to help them create scenarios where they are in control and feel safe, a great need for children who have witnessed violence. "With imaginative play therapy, they can process anything that is strange in their life," says Suchoki Brown.

But for kids who are older and can talk, much of the healing will follow the same pattern as that for the adults, she says. "What we're trying to get everyone to do, regardless of age, is to understand that they've been through a very abnormal situation and what they're experiencing is a very normal reaction."

Mendola and her former husband, who's still a friend, attended counseling services through UUTRM a day after the shooting. "It was extremely helpful," she says.

Their daughter Évora attended a special group for those who were to perform in the play. "She didn't see the gun, any blood, or see anyone get hurt," says Mendola. "Some of the hardest stuff for her was seeing her friends, how shaken they were. It was totally important for her feelings to be able to connect with the other children from the musical."

The idea to sing "Tomorrow" from Annie Jr. at the community-wide vigil the night after the shooting also emerged in that group, says Mendola. "They had worked so hard. A lot of the kids really wanted to do the play again, but as one of the adults said, ‘What would be healing for some children would be impossibly traumatic for others.' But they did decide they could sing the song."

Now, says Mendola, Évora seems to be doing okay. "She'll talk candidly when I bring it up, but she doesn't talk directly about the event on her own. She'll bring it up at odd times. We'll be at the grocery store and she'll say, "This would be a bad place for a shooting, mom.'"

The family had planned a trip to Buffalo that was to have started the week after the shooting. "I didn't know if I could be away from my church family, and I hadn't been sleeping much so I didn't know if I'd be too tired to drive," says Mendola. "I asked my daughter what she thought, and she told me, ‘The two things I wanted to do this summer was be in Annie and see my family. That man took Annie away but I'm not going to let him take my family reunion.' So of course we went!"

Talk will also pull youth and adults alike through the process, says Suchoki Brown, and Henry, who worked with 9-12th graders during her time at TVUUC, says that UU teens active in the church are already in the habit of having complicated discussions. "A lot of them grappled with being told they were going to go to hell if they didn't accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. We talked a lot about how someone would become homeless, and civil rights for gay teens. They're already listening carefully to what their peers are saying."

As for Mendola, she does have a ready answer to that common question about her and her child's safety. "I may have had an ironic reaction in that I actually feel safer in that church than before the shooting—not that I didn't feel safe before," she says. "I feel especially secure now because one of the worst things that could happen did happen, and my church family took care of us."