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.
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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