What you're feeling after the campus shooting is normal

children sitting on curb with adults standing behind them

Members of the University of Arizona and Tucson communities gathered on campus on Oct. 7, 2022, for a candlelight vigil held to honor the life of Thomas Meixner.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The University of Arizona lost a beloved faculty member on Oct. 5 when Thomas Meixner was shot and killed by a former student in the university's John W. Harshbarger Building.

The tragedy was felt across campus by those who personally knew Meixner, professor and head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, as well as by students and employees who had never met him.  

It's common to experience a wide range of emotions after a tragic event like a shooting, said Patricia Haynes, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Many members of the campus community may be feeling sad, angry, confused or afraid, while others might not be feeling any strong emotions at all, Haynes said.

All of it is normal.  

"It's normal to be experiencing a wide range of emotions, and it's also normal to be experiencing no emotion," Haynes said. "Every person is affected individually and everyone has their own reactions." 

Following the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting in Tucson that left six dead and seriously injured former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Haynes and her colleagues developed a handout for survivors to address some of the common concerns people have after a tragedy, such as how to deal with nightmares or difficulty eating and sleeping. Haynes, who is also the psychologist for the Tucson Fire Department, shares similar information with firefighters responding to difficult calls. 

After a traumatic event, nightmares and painful memories can be common and are part of the mind's natural way of processing what you've been through, Haynes said. She recommends accepting and acknowledging these thoughts and feelings rather than pushing them away, with the knowledge that the images and their frequency will gradually diminish over time.

"It's important to realize this is your body's natural reaction to a stressful event. It's not going to always be this way," she said.

Difficulty sleeping or eating can also be common responses to stress following a tragedy. If it's difficult to eat meals, Haynes recommends trying something easier to swallow, like a smoothie. If trouble sleeping persists, you might want to consider reaching out to a health care provider to be treated for insomnia, Haynes said. 

"Focusing in on daily routine can also be really helpful – getting back to your daily rhythm," she said. "For example, if you exercise certain days, go back to that regular routine."

After a tragedy, some people may want to avoid talking about what happened or visiting places that remind them of the event. That means some people may feel uncomfortable being on campus right now, Haynes said.

Returning to campus, however, might also be an opportunity for healing, she said.

"When we experience fear, we tend to stay avoid. But one of the things that can actually help is to approach instead," she said. "When ready, it may be time to walk around campus with a friend."

Coming together with others who are grieving can also be helpful. On Oct. 7, a few hundred people gathered for a public candlelight vigil on the University of Arizona Mall in honor of Meixner, who has been described by friends and loved ones as an incredible son, brother, husband, father, uncle, colleague and friend, as well as an optimistic, selfless and passionate teacher.

Haynes said events like that are important.

"It's important to memorialize the loss, and it is an important part of the healing process," she said. "Events like these help us come together as a group and remind us that the University of Arizona community stands against hate and violence."

Some people might also take comfort in giving back. One option is a memorial fund the University of Arizona Foundation has established in Meixner's name. In addition, Meixner's extended family has set up a GoFundMe effort to support Meixner's wife, Kathleen, and their sons, Sean and Brendan. Funds will support immediate costs related to the funeral and will help create a foundation for moving forward with living and educational expenses.

Haynes said that it is important to recognize that most people heal naturally after a stressful event and will not develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Allowing yourself to feel your emotions and looking to friends, family and mental health professionals for support can aid significantly in the healing process, Haynes said. So can engaging in relaxation or positive activities such as hobbies or spiritual practice, she added.

She said avoiding excessive news coverage is also often a good idea.

"We want information and we want to understand why," she said. "We're looking for answers, but the problem is the news cycle repeats over and over again – often with very little new information. So it's not very helpful. I recommend turning off the news after you've gotten your update."

Haynes said anyone who would like to talk to a professional should feel comfortable reaching out, including those who might be reexperiencing past traumas as the result of the shooting. 

At the University of Arizona, students can access professional mental health care through Counseling and Psych Services, 520-621-3334. University employers and their dependents can access 24/7 Employee Assistance Counseling through Life & Work Connections by calling 877-327-2362 (TTY: 800-6970353).


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