On July 4th the community of Highland Park was attacked by gunfire. The reactions to the sudden violence and terror in this suburban Chicago community range from shock to sadness, and fear to anger. In the past decade, this kind of violence has become more common, and our collective response has been a futile attempt to make sense of the unthinkable. We search for motives, perhaps thinking, if we can explain it away, that puts more distance between us and the violence.  

At least that is the thinking trap that I’ve fallen into at times. It has allowed me to create emotional distance from the heartbreaking increase in violence that has befallen Chicago over the years. And then a neighboring town I appreciate for it’s live outdoor music venue, good restaurants and nearby friends was attacked on Monday by a weapon meant for warfare. I scrambled to check in with friends and colleagues, hoping they were not affected. I soon realized that a sudden, violent attack of this magnitude affects the entire community. As I struggle to process this violent act and support others, I find it helpful to focus on things that can help guide my thoughts and actions.

Acknowledge the pain of others. Far more people are affected by events like this than we realize. The headlines focus on death tolls, yet anyone in the vicinity of the bloodshed experienced significant trauma. Their survival is easier for us to focus on, marking them as ‘lucky,’ when what they bore witness to will leave scars. Following the shooting in Highland Park I checked in with many friends and was relieved to hear they were out of danger. And I was heartened to see how members of my own community were stepping in to help. One friend, a surgical physician assistant at the healthcare system on the front lines, was off work Monday but spent the rest of the week providing care and compassion to those injured in the attack. Another friend, a licensed therapist, stepped in to volunteer her time in Highland Park counseling residents working through their trauma. These are just a couple of the heroes who don’t make headlines, but their courage to work on the front lines of this community will have lasting positive effects.

Make space for your own pain, frustration and sadness. It doesn’t matter if you were 5 or 500 miles from an attack like the one in Highland Park, the fact that you are affected makes you human. And it’s ok if you’re not okay, and if your eventual ‘okay’ looks different from your baseline prior to the event.  It’s important not to let others rush you through the healing process. A recent Hidden Brain podcast explores the tendency for Americans to equate pain with growth. The concept of post-traumatic growth is so embedded in our culture that trauma or loss is either rationalized, “Everything happens for a reason,” or minimized when you or a loved one was not directly in the line of fire. Working through grief and pain is not a linear process, and can be challenging to explain to others. A friend who lost her husband several years ago shared recently that journaling was extremely helpful in her healing process. Writing that, “We look back to learn and forward to succeed. Memory is a fickle file system, but words on paper tell the real story and will help you learn—no matter how mundane they may seem at the time.” Additional tips on coping from NorthShore Highland Park Hospital can be found here.

And once you are ready, act. Don’t wait for the next attack to hit even closer to home. Tell lawmakers, business leaders and anyone else you can think of that these kinds of weapons are not meant to be owned by anyone who’s not active-duty military. As a country we dance around gun law reform, thinking longer waiting periods or better background checks will help. And while those and better systems and tools to address mental health concerns are needed, this weaponry readily available to most Americans should be banned. As Vice President Kamala Harris said on her visit to Highland Park this week, “An assault weapon is designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly. There is no reason that we have weapons of war on the streets of America.”  I happen to agree with the Vice President, and organizations like Giffords, founded by Congresswoman Gabi Giffords, is working to reduce gun violence by reducing gun access.

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.

Coretta Scott King

While events like this cause tremendous pain, they can also serve as reminders of our shared humanity. People from all backgrounds coming together in support of one another, displaying a unity and resilience that shows the world that the terrorist has not won. And just a few days after the July 4th shooting, Highland Park’s under-13 baseball team played my son’s Glenview Patriots team. We were clearly outmatched by the Highland Park Giants, both in skill and determination. When the game ended with a big win for the Giants, something unusual happened in baseball. The Patriots, their parents and fans, gave the opposing team a standing ovation. That’s what #HighlandParkStrong looks like.

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