Talking To and With — not About — Survivors of Trauma

Kelsie McWilliams
5 min readOct 3, 2017


Policy change for America.

I absolutely cannot stand the way anyone talks about collective trauma, especially mass shootings. Before I wrote my master’s thesis, I had always observed strange tropes and formulaic language but didn’t know what to make of them. But writing my thesis has changed the way I consume media and political speech in the aftermath of such events. If you look closely, you’ll notice some patterns. Here, I’ve condensed some of the biggest takeaways from my 114-pg. thesis so that you can learn better strategies for talking to and with those who’ve experienced trauma:

1. Don’t call survivors “heroes.”

This seems counterintuitive because it’s positive: everyone wants to be known as a hero, right? Not really. Think of both the short-term and long-term effects of labeling someone a hero for something they did in fight-or-flight mode in the midst of a disaster. Basically, you’re putting this label on them, one they might feel inclined, and unable, to live up to for the remainder of their lives. Think about how hard it is to admit vulnerability or weakness when everyone puts the label of “hero” on you. You don’t want to shatter the illusion, but you also need help.

Think about being the person who survives the tragedy but doesn’t leap in front of his or her significant other. Think of the guilt that might weigh on them for not doing so. But is that really something they should feel guilty about? No one can anticipate or control how they react to a traumatic event. Therefore, we shouldn’t label certain behavior heroic and consequently imply that other behaviors are problematic or less valid. There is no “normal” response to trauma — or to grief, for that matter.

2. Don’t say that those who died are “in a better place.”

Again, it seems comforting, but if you dig deeper, you’ll certainly recognize the familiar religious presumptions that inform this response. When you say something like this, you essentially silence agnostic, atheist, and non-religious voices. You’re shutting them out of the conversation by making their voices unwelcome. You know that they don’t necessarily agree with you, but they can’t voice their disagreement without looking heartless or cruel. You’ve put them in a scenario where they can’t contribute anything meaningful without redirecting the conversation or calling attention to their own belief system.

In times of trauma, we need to create a dialogue that makes room for people of all belief systems without favoring a Christian or monotheistic narrative.

3. Don’t make the trauma about you or us as a nation. It’s about those directly impacted by the trauma.

I realize there might be some gray area here in terms of who is affected by the trauma, either indirectly or directly. I’m not saying that we as Americans don’t experience pain or sadness when a trauma like this happens, and I’m not undermining the psychological experience of seeing trauma unfold on the news every day. But media coverage and political speeches shouldn’t be focused on how the nation will heal. It’s about reaching out to those directly impacted to support them through the process of healing. It’s about letting them know that we will be there to help them heal.

4. Don’t assume that those who’ve experienced trauma will eventually recover completely.

Healing is not a guarantee for everyone. Some people may live their lives relatively unaffected by the trauma while others may experience much more drastic effects. It’s different for every individual. Talking about healing as though it’s inevitable, assured, or only a matter of time is disrespectful to those who may never heal. And again, this sort of tone will only place unrealistic or unfair expectations on them. Some people may find themselves asking, “why have I not recovered? Why is this still affecting me? When will I stop hurting?” When we talk about healing, we need to assume that everyone will experience varying degrees of recovery, and that’s okay. We will be there to support them no matter what.

5. Don’t blame disasters or traumatic events on evil, darkness, or some other invisible, metaphysical force.

When you attribute violence to anyone or anything other than the person who perpetrated it, you derail the conversation. I’m not referring to reasonable forces that would contribute to or facilitate an act of violence. It’s perfectly reasonable to attribute causation when the evidence is there. But when you place blame on things that you have to believe in, whether it’s a vague force of evil or Satan himself, you grind the conversation to a screeching halt. What is the point of ever doing anything to mitigate tragedy if Satan or Lucifer or whatever you want to name this evil is singlehandedly inspiring someone to perpetrate a mass shooting?

Much like in my 2nd bullet point, you’re shutting those who don’t believe in the same version of evil as you out of the conversation. On top of that, you’re ultimately erasing any other potential cause or catalyst for the trauma and preventing meaningful conversation about how to prevent future tragedies. If the trauma is caused by random and sporadic evil, then there’s literally nothing we can do about it and we shouldn’t even bother trying. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the case.

6. Advocate for meaningful and significant policy changes.

As you might have noticed, this bullet point is unlike the others. First, it’s not one I covered extensively in my thesis. Second, instead of telling you not to do something, I’m telling you something that you should do.

Here’s what I want to emphasize: Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

But if we want to do something to help those who’ve experienced traumatic events, there are numerous policy changes we can work towards implementing.

You’re totally expecting me to talk about gun control. But I’m not.

The last thing that anyone who survived a traumatic event should need is a GoFundMe to cover their exorbitant medical expenses.

The reality is that we’ve created an environment and a nation where mass shootings are commonplace and acceptable. This is obviously tragic for a number of reasons that I don’t want to focus on in this post. But if we’ve come to terms with the idea that mass shootings are inevitable, “the price of freedom,” or some other nonsense, and we’re absolutely not interested in doing more to enforce existing gun laws or pass sensible gun legislation, then the very least we can do is make sure that those who’ve experienced a mass shooting, or any other traumatic event for that matter, have access to the care they need in order to begin healing.

This means eliminating the stigma around mental health issues and making healthcare itself more affordable. In order to foster a dialogue where survivors of trauma are our first priority, we must advocate for tangible ways to ensure that some degree of healing or recovery is possible for and accessible to everyone.

There’s so much more I’m eager to cover, but my heart is heavy. I’m tired of seeing the same formula play out time and time again in the media and amongst our elected representatives. If you’ve noticed any other problematic ways of talking about traumatic events, I’d love to hear your observations and reflections.



Kelsie McWilliams

she/her. A writer and editor who loves dogs. Exvangelical. I read and write about trauma of all varieties because there is hope and healing in this world.