Emotionally numb in response to Toronto’s deadly van attack

Emotionally numb in response to Toronto’s deadly van attack

In an article about the emotional impact of last week’s van attack in Toronto, writer Margaret McKinnon says that “even those of us who simply saw news coverage of the horrible incident” may experience PTSD. She explains it is normal to experience increased irritability, problems concentrating, fatigue, exhaustion, and interpersonal difficulties. She makes no mention of feeling emotionally numb.

I have been feeling emotionally numb.

On Monday, April 23, 2018, a 25-year-old man in a white rental van barrelled his way down a large stretch of one of Toronto’s busiest arteries, taking down people like they were bowling pins.

My husband and I were in the midst of a text exchange about our dinner plans when he posed the question. “Did you hear about the rampage on Yonge Street?” I hadn’t. I looked it up on Google and read the news. I uttered yikes to myself and got back to work.

Soon after, my phone pinged. It was a friend in London, checking to make sure we were all okay. I replied to her and got back to business. An hour later, an email message with the same query. And then another.

I began to notice that people were posting Facebook status updates confirming their safety. As I continued scrolling, I found myself both touched and impressed by how beautifully and quickly a friend had been able to express her thoughts on the day’s events.

“Innocents have died, families and friends will suffer and we will all wonder why this had to happen. I know I don’t have the answer. I do know my heart is bleeding for those beautiful people who have lost their lives today and their families and friends.”

I gave her words a heart because I knew she had written them from the heart, and because I truly did heart them — even though I myself was unable to feel them. And still, I can’t. I understand what has occurred. I feel a little less naive than I did on Sunday. But beyond that, I feel emotionally numb.

Grief-stricken, relieved, guilty, emotionally numb? How does terror(ism) affect you?

Whatever you’re feeling, it’s OK. I realize I’m not a superior being with the right or authority to bless your decisions or anything. Still, if you are struggling in response to the van attack, I would like to be able to place my hand gently on your shoulder and tell you to take a breath, to feel whatever you’re feeling – because there is no right way to process something as impossible to process as Monday’s madness. Or those similar attacks that took place in London, Stockholm, and Barcelona. Or this year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Or the war in Syria.

I want to tell you that what you’re feeling right now is alright. Why? Because I know that I want someone to tell me that what I’m feeling right now is alright. And I can’t be the only one wanting a little reassurance.

On Monday, I didn’t give much thought to feeling emotionally numb.

(I suppose if you’re emotionally numb, you’re not actually feeling.) Nor did I think to question it on Tuesday. But by mid-week, I felt a little uneasy about myself as I watched the world around me respond.

For example, I heard that a rabbi was organizing an all-faith event so that members of the community could come together and share their grief. I heard that St. John’s Ambulance had brought therapy dogs to the scene of the van attack to help comfort those in mourning.

A friend told me she had been at that intersection just a week before; it could have been her, she said. People everywhere, it seemed, were feeling things. But not me.


And then I spoke about this to a friend in London, England. She pointed out that she’d (sadly) long accepted that such events are part of reality. And I remembered that, yes, growing up in London, bomb threats were par for the course. Still, that didn’t stop us heading underground and taking the tube to some crowded destination – the perfect target for an aspiring terrorist. Could that be the reason for my numbness?

What is the right way to respond to tragedy?

As a Torontonian, what adds a layer of complexity to Monday’s van attack for me, personally, is the fact that while, yes, the tragedy happened in my city, it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the victims – those killed, those injured, and those survivors who are personally impacted – like 7-year-old Diyon who lost his only parent, Renuka Amarasingha.

For me to make this assault somehow mine feels as wrong as making the death of a co-worker’s parent mine. Of course, what about the fact this happened in my city. To my people. It’s an outrage, right? Shouldn’t I feel something — anger, fear, sadness — anything besides emotional numbness?

Should. Would. Could. Nobody can tell you — or me — how to respond.

Trust me. I do think about how close to home this attack was. But when I do, what keeps coming to mind is this: a life is a life is a life. The lives of those in my fair city are as sacred as the lives of those everywhere else. And so, if I am to stop and grieve for the unjust loss of life here, I must stop and grieve for the unjust loss of life everywhere. I would, I am sure, not be able to get up if I were to permit myself to feel such grief.

And so I skim. Judge me if you must but this is my way. I am not cold. I am not unfeeling. I am, I suppose, avoiding conflict in a sense; the inner conflict that arises when you realize how incredibly lucky you are to be free, healthy and safe, when others who are equally deserving of that freedom, health and safety are suffering or gone.

Disclosure: A few hundred words into this post and the numbness subsided a little.

When I referenced 7-year-old Diyon earlier on, I felt a tremble in my heart. It was the first visceral reaction I’ve had since the news broke. I allowed myself to put a face and name to this tragedy for just a minute. It was enough to remind me how easily the floodgates can break.

And so, I do not want to read the personal exposes about each of the victims. It is enough for me to know that each of them was once loved by a mother as fiercely as I love my daughter. That is all I need to know in order to comprehend that I cannot possibly comprehend the magnitude of grief among their family members and friends.

Yes, my heart feels whole when perhaps it should feel a little more broken. But as a whole heart, it feels whole-hearted sympathy for the grieving. And I, wholeheartedly, feel a sense of deep longing that there be more love in this world.

Emotionally numb - image 2

May the bodies, hearts, and minds of the injured heal.

May fear among them and their loved ones one day subside.

May those whose lives were taken — Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Geraldine Brady, Chul Min Kang, Anne Marie D’Amico, Mary Elizabeth Forsyth,  Munir Abdo Habib Najjar, Dorothy Sewell, Andrea Bradden, Beutis Renuka Amarasingha —  rest in peace.

Viv for today xo

If you took the time to read this post. Thank you. I am truly humbled.

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By |2018-08-17T14:06:42-05:00April 29th, 2018|10 Comments


  1. Cathy Tubb April 30, 2018 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    “And so, if I am to stop and grieve for the unjust loss of life here, I must stop and grieve for the unjust loss of life everywhere. I would, I am sure, not be able to get up if I were to permit myself to feel such grief.”
    I understand this sentiment very well Viv. I work with loss and grief almost every single day and if I permitted myself to feel that grief as though it were my own, I could not do my job with any measure of effectiveness. It would render me useless.
    It does not mean I do not understand their sorrow. It doesn’t make me hard or unfeeling. It doesn’t make me numb to their pain.
    It means that I am wise enough to know I cannot carry their pain as though it were my own, it would crush me.
    I still care and I offer my sympathy and support in the way I know best – words – words that offer healing and encouragement and kindness and love, which is what you have just done as well.
    Thank you for your honesty <3

    • Viv April 30, 2018 at 2:34 pm - Reply

      Yes, Cathy. It would render me useless, too. Just writing that post took so much out of me. I can’t imagine how someone in your position could ‘feel it all’ and still live up to the role you are tasked with.

  2. norma April 30, 2018 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Spot on for me Viv, your feelings pretty much reflect mine. My point of comparison, apart from checking loved ones to find out if they know any who live or work in the particular area of this attack, is that single Mom going down. Leaving behind her son, on his own. How this will follow him & direct many of his behaviours & feelings throughout his life…

    Otherwise my heart is bleeding wide open for too much and for too many. I think of it as a kind of culling of sentiment. Which place, person, event deserves my love most, my feelings most?

    • Viv April 30, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

      It is exactly that, Norma. A ‘culling’ of sentiment. You’re braver than I in that you put that in writing. But it is exactly what I was thinking. If I grieve for them, and them, and them … what will be left of me to give those in my most inner circles?

  3. Lynn April 30, 2018 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    And I thought I was alone in not being overcome with emotion about what happened. I was no more or less moved by the events in Toronto than in Paris or Barcelona or London. I can’t imagine what the families and friends of those killed and injured are going through, but I am not grieving or distraught, fearful or angry. 9-11 was the last time I was emotionally affected by a newsworthy event. I think it may have numbed me to all the others that came after it.

    • Viv April 30, 2018 at 9:11 pm - Reply

      No, Lynn, you are definitely not alone. Given the responses I’ve had so far, I’m so glad I wrote this post. No shame in keeping it real. Thanks for reading.

  4. Whymances May 1, 2018 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    There was a study done on how people could hear about famine or genocide on the news only to move on a few seconds later. It had to do with mass population (anonymous) vs personal (identifying with a person). Your experience sounds similar to that.

    If it’s any reassurance, I feel the same way you do (nothing). I’m happy to be alive.

    • Viv May 1, 2018 at 8:08 pm - Reply

      Amen to that, Melissa.

  5. Amy May 4, 2018 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Viv, this resonated with me, “the inner conflict that arises when you realize how incredibly lucky you are to be free, healthy and safe, when others who are equally deserving of that freedom, health and safety are suffering or gone.” I struggle, and perhaps others do too, with the internal conflict of sometimes wanting certainty and knowing life is uncertain, wanting permanence (thoughts like, “I wish this moment would never end”) and knowing things change, nothing is permanent. And, when things like the van attack happen, it is the awareness of that internal conflict you describe that is, I think, *aliveness*.

    Thank you for writing about your experience with so much thought and care.

    • Viv May 5, 2018 at 8:32 am - Reply

      Thank you, Amy. The comments I have received on this particular post mean so much to me.

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