‘It’s a complicated grief’

In the aftermath of a massacre, the Orlando community is reeling with grief, anger and pain.

Dr. John Shafer knows the emotions that they’re going through. As director of the counseling center at Franklin College and a trained psychologist, he is prepared to help the survivors, friends and families of the victims cope.

But his connection to the tragedy is even deeper.

“I’m a gay psychologist, so I have a personal commitment to helping my people,” he said. “I have been trained in trauma and disaster response, and I have the skills to give. I feel like I need to go down there.”

Shafer will leave Wednesday for Orlando, volunteering his expertise with organizations helping friends, family and the community cope with the shooting at a gay nightclub earlier this month. He will be meeting up with an agency already in the process of providing counseling and resources to families of the deceased, as well as survivors.

After gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 people, many of them in their 20s and 30s, Shafer wants to do anything he can for those left shattered by the violence.

“It’s a complicated grief. You’re not supposed to bury your 25-year-old son,” he said.

Shafer is trained in psychological first aid, an approach used to help those who have experienced extreme trauma in their lives. Just as physical first aid helps prevent an injury to the body from getting worse, psychological first aid is an expert-developed system for ensuring that a person is mentally and emotionally treated.

Central to that is restoring in people a sense of control in their lives, Shafer said.

“They have completely lost control when they’ve lost someone in that tragic way,” he said. “It’s a matter of listening to them, listening to their heart, listening to their sadness, and letting them cry. It’s allowing them to be with someone who will accept whatever emotions they feel and want to share, without any judgment.”

This is not Shafer’s first time experiencing the aftermath of tragedy. After a shooter opened fire in a geology classroom at Northern Illinois University in 2008, Shafer was summoned to help students cope with the violence on their campus.

He was also available for the Franklin community — particularly detectives, police and emergency workers — to talk about the day Chynna L. Dickus, 26, and Blake Dickus, 10, were found dead in their Franklin home in 2006.

Shafer doesn’t know exactly what to expect once he arrives in Orlando. He doesn’t know anyone in that community, and only has images from the media to give him perspective.

But with his professional experience, he has some idea of what is waiting in Florida.

“I don’t know anybody down there, but I feel like I know everybody, just because of my connection with them,” he said.

Up until this point, the rawness of the murders has left people in shock. But by the time Shafer reaches Florida, funerals and memorial services will be underway or already done.

People will be reaching the next depth of their pain.

“Those events bring out a very painful grief reaction to those who have been through traumatic loss,” he said. “They’re going to need people in funeral parlors to help the families who, in most cases, have lost someone very young in a moment of time. They were in their youth, celebrating, and then their life was taken from them instantly.”

A complicating factor in the recovery process comes from the fact that the shooting was in a gay club, and that some of the victims may not have been out as homosexuals to their families, Shafer said.

“They’re finding out, ‘Not only had my son or daughter been killed, but they’re gay.’ Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable sharing that with their family members,” he said. “There are going to be lots of layers of grief and loss and shock and anger. There’s a real need.”

Shafer and fellow volunteers will reiterate to the people they meet with that they have friends and family who love them, that they’re not alone and encourage them to reach out. Over and over, they will stress that grieving a loved one is a hard, but necessary process that needs to be experienced.

Grief throughout the first year will be severe. Birthdays, holidays and anniversaries will all serve as a painful reminder of their loss, Shafer said.

But the worst way to handle that is to hold those emotions inside, leading to clinical depression or rage, Shafer said.

Volunteer counselors will also ensure that the people they meet with are connected with professional therapists and counselors for long-term care.

“Anyone who goes through that level of trauma needs professional counseling,” he said.

Shafer will be paying his own way to Florida, as well as his own expenses for lodging and food. His plan is to spend a week or two in Orlando.

“I have felt passionately all my life about helping those in need. I have a unique set of skills that I can use down in Orlando, from a lot of different perspectives,” he said.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.