The Sandy Hook Healing Project (SHHP) is a grassroots effort that offered healing for the community after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Kellie Brooks was there from the beginning, coordinating practitioners, organizing, scheduling, helping manage operations. Just days before the Boston Marathon bombings, Kellie described the experience to me.
The mission of SHHP was to create a healing refuge in the community. No one had to articulate a specific need, or talk at all. The project wasn’t about fixing or even expressing emotion; it was about being safe and cared for.
“We weren’t trying to get people to release,” Kellie said. “The point was to ground them in their bodies.”
Early on, SHHP wisely partnered with an established non-profit whose staff were experienced in trauma care. The experts walked Kellie through the vetting process, how to know which practitioners are fit for the very sensitive work of trauma and bereavement support, how to recognize practitioners who would adapt to a team effort, those flexible enough to run an errand or sweep the floor when too many practitioners showed up to offer Reiki or massage.
Creating healing space
Services were offered in a warehouse that Kellie and others transformed “from concrete into a love-filled space.” Fabric donated by a local business was draped to create a modicum of privacy for massage or Reiki sessions, and to define a living room and a room where art therapists played with kids.
Outreach for the project was done through social media, starting with Facebook. The food station was stocked with donations, some brought by New York City chefs. Yoga classes were offered.
One day a choir from Brooklyn sang gospel in the entry. Another day, a flutist arrived. Therapy dogs were brought in. People offered what they had in a way that was respectful and safe for the community. No one imposed concepts of what someone else needed.
Honoring the healing process
Kellie shared important points that made the project so successful. If you are organizing a relief effort, please learn from what SHHP did so very well.
- Connect with trauma experts so you learn how to be with people in shock; wanting to help is not enough. Unskilled “helpers” can cause more pain.
- Vet volunteers carefully — not everyone who wants to help is a good candidate for direct contact. Despite their good intentions, too eager do-gooders can be too proactive, bringing an abrasiveness to their interactions that is hurtful to people who are raw.
- If someone shows up who is a good service candidate, find a way to use them.
- Give volunteers specific instructions, protocols for treatment, and scripts for addressing members of the community.
- Be creative in problem-solving when setting up a healing space; don’t let perfectionism weigh you down.
- Take care of yourselves and your staff. Serving those who have been traumatized requires steadiness and sensitivity. Staff cannot serve when they are too stressed to be present. Allow staff to offer and receive treatment with one another as needed and feasible.
- Don’t be attached to the details of your service or to particular outcomes. Be willing to do what is needed rather than just what you came to do. Sweeping the floor is as important as placing your hands.
- Don’t ask people how they are. Don’t ask questions about their experience. This is not conversation time. There is nothing you can say that will help, and mindless words can easily hit a nerve.
- Welcome people, give your name, and tell them simply what you will do — “I’ll place my hands gently on or just above your head and torso” — and give them control of the process. Don’t try to talk someone into touch if they feel shy.
- Always ask permission before touching, even if the person has already consented to massage or Reiki treatment.
- Don’t talk about yourself — at all — even if you have been through similar trauma.
- Be mindful of your language, avoiding any common phrasing that has violent images, such as “shooting” an email or “blasting” through a project.
- Take good care of yourself and check-in gently with other staff, especially if someone seems ungrounded.
Get help to give help
If you want to help, get help. Reiki training on its own is not enough. Take care of yourself — that’s first — but also learn the skills of helping others. The art of supporting people after trauma cannot be learned on the internet. It’s something you need to see in action.
If you are organizing a relief effort of any size, please reach out to a professional for guidance and collaboration.
Meanwhile, if you have an opportunity to offer healing to someone on your own, be gentle. Be still. Be empty, and listen with all your being. The mindset of a practitioner supporting someone after trauma is presence rather than action.
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