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5 Things Women Can Do To Recover From Pain, Grief And Trauma

How the friendships formed by seven survivors of the Las Vegas massacre can inspire others two years after the shootings.

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Friends from the vegas shooting have a girls night out wearing The Girlfriend tshirts
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for AARP
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On October 1, 2017, Linda Schaltinat-Conner was enjoying Jason Aldean’s love song “When She Says Baby” at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, when a man went on a shooting rampage, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.

But even as she describes that evening as a “harrowing night of hell,” Conner celebrates the positive: the lifelong friendships between the 55-year-old mother from California and a group of six fellow survivors that were borne out of tragedy.

Today, nearly two years after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Conner says she believes everything happens for a reason.

“As we fought to survive and then as we began the healing process, we became a family,” she says.

Earlier this year, the story of Conner’s friendship with these other survivors won third place in the Girlfriend Getaway Contest, sponsored by AARP’s weekly e-newsletter for women 40+ — The Girlfriend. The contest — a celebration of female friendship — asked readers to explain in an essay, why their best friend IS their best friend. Conner wrote about one of the women in particular, Leslie Hess, 51, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, even though the bond is shared by all seven women.

With their Girlfriend Getaway Contest winnings, the women traveled to Nashville on August 1, 2019 for a much-needed girls’ weekend. “We are all from different states, but we consider ourselves the Warrior Sisterhood,” Conner says. Not only did the women play tourist, they also were treated — by The Girlfriend — to dinner at Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar in Nashville.

The women included Conner and Hess, as well as Susan Hodge-James, 54, Kimbur Prezmik, 53, Donna Compton-Pettigrew, 43, Michelle Bearden, 27, and Sunny Oberto, 54. (Prezmik’s boyfriend, Steven Lehtinen, 55, also traveled with them.)

“Having people that can totally relate to the horrific situation we experienced has been priceless,” says Oberto of Ventura, Calif.

“We cried with each other and still do. We hugged each other and still do. We understand and really appreciate each and every day with a whole new outlook,” she says. “Every one of us has learned to live in the moment and practice gratitude towards everything we experience. These friendships have changed our lives in so many positive ways.”

According to therapists, women are often each other’s greatest cheerleaders, so it makes sense that these friendships have helped them find joy after trauma.

Cristina Young, a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years’ experience providing support to families and adults, said these women deftly walked the tightrope between pushing and comforting as they navigated each other’s pain.

“No wonder then, that when faced with excruciating grief and trauma, a group of women who all happened to be present during the Las Vegas massacre, formed a deep friendship while attempting to heal from this horrific event,” she says.

With that in mind, Young offered five other suggestions for women seeking to build resilience in the face of adversity.

1) Name it to tame it. When we label a feeling aloud, we start to diffuse it. We begin to loosen the hold that feeling has on us. The more we attempt to ignore a feeling, the more it grows. As unpleasant as it sounds, we have to encourage each other to walk right into the discomfort, to name our big feelings aloud to each other. This is step one in the process of beginning to heal. Help a friend who is struggling by staring those unspeakably sad feelings in the face with her, rather than brushing them under the rug. This will help them begin to distill.

2) Look for mentors. Identify someone who has already suffered greatly, looked grief in the face, and come out the other side. Get your friend who is struggling in front of this person. If we want to be a good piano player, we search for an excellent pianist to teach us her methods. If we want to learn to rock climb, we find a talented rock climber and learn his strategies. Find someone who has survived deep pain and ask them how they did it, even though everyone’s grief presents differently. It always helps to find someone a few steps ahead of us, who can turn back and offer us a hand, lend us a map out of our grief. If you see your friend struggling, take her and bring her to this mentor.

3) Highlight existing strengths. When you notice your friend who is grieving gracefully manage a particularly difficult moment, applaud her and ask her the magic question: How did you manage to survive that moment? Ask: “What exact coping words did you say to yourself?” Write them down for her on an index card. Send those words to her in a text and an email. Snap a photo of the words on the index cards, print it, and frame it for her. Those words are worth gold because they prove that she can do hard things. She can find the inner strength to overcome uncomfortable, painful moments. Help her set up the scaffolding to build on those words so that they become the default conversation in her head as she heals.

4) Model vulnerability. The more you open up to your grieving friend about your own difficulties, the more you normalize the habit of exposing vulnerabilities. The way through the trauma is right through the yucky middle of it, but we have to normalize this process for each other. Tell stories of your own pain, the ugly truth of your suffering. Being vulnerable in front of each other is the apex of bravery. Watch your trust and bond with this person quadruple if you take that risk. Be brave with what you share so that she can feel safe in doing the same. Each time she shares her painful story, she will feel the grief lift ever so slightly. When it settles in again, it will not be as oppressive. Model this so that she learns this is a safe and worthwhile process. She will share it with others when it is their turn.

5) No babysitting allowed. Teach your friend to speak her truth when and where she chooses to do so. Putting a positive spin on her mood to make others more comfortable will slow the healing process to a standstill. Tell your friend that if she needs to respond with “Actually I’m incredibly sad today” when the manicurist asks her how she’s doing, that’s fine. It is not our job to babysit others’ feelings or moods. The expression of our own pain might impact someone else. We tend to self-appoint the job of caretaker of others’ feelings, when no one actually assigns us that job. Make the assumption that the other person can tolerate your telling the truth. Truth telling is the balm we need to heal.

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