The Boulder community sprang into action to bring free group counseling to people whose peace was shattered by the mass shooting at the King Soopers grocery store. But Phillip Horner, a local therapist who spearheaded the effort with key partners, says they were nevertheless unprepared for the overwhelming scale of the tragedy. After just a few days and massive organizing, however, an infrastructure is in place to help a wide array of traumatized people now and for the foreseeable future.
Horner, founder and co-director of Whole Connection, is a licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist. As the horrific events of March 22 unfolded, he watched Sandy Phillips being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and quickly realized he needed to reach out to Survivors Empowered. “Having someone like Sandy, who has been through the same experience, can only enhance our ability to support people and help us know what to expect and predict,” Horner said. “It’s very much in her wheelhouse. It takes a ton to organize this, and people like Sandy have been doing this for a long time.”
Even though gearing up was a monumental task, the alliance Horner, the Umbrella Collective, Naropa Community Counseling Center, the Therapy Aid Coalition and other partners quickly built is now fully in gear.
The day after the shooting, more than 60 people participated in free 90-minute separate group sessions that were targeted to first responders, those who had been in the grocery store, family members who had lost someone and the larger community. There were Spanish interpreters, and also one group conducted in Spanish, and there were trauma therapists standing by for anyone who needed extra support, privacy or therapy.
The initial gatherings were meant as a rapid response, and a way for people to connect to each other and be given other guidance if needed, with tips about such things as regulating emotions while not bottling up feelings. Groups were separated according to situation, to avoid re-traumatizing people for whom the recollections of eyewitnesses, such as first responders, might be especially painful.
For the next five weeks, there will be weekly segmented group sessions that are trauma-, crisis- and group-informed, and specially trained counselors have offered their services without charge. About a third of the people who went to the first sessions have signed on for another meeting. Horner is glad that the next sessions will include therapists from outside the area. He and other local providers need time to process their own grief and the weight of emotions that mass murder in Boulder has brought. They, too, need time to emote, and Horner is touched by the numbers or highly trained and qualified therapists who have stepped in.
In Boulder, although people’s hearts are broken and some may feel the natural instinct to retreat, Horner believes that ongoing nightly vigils have been a good way to help people avoid isolating themselves with their grief and trauma. “It’s an important part of healing and connecting with the emotion rather than feeling numb,” he explained. “When I hear someone say I don’t have emotion about it, I talk to them, and in five or ten minutes it comes up; it might be pain, it might be anger.” What’s especially important, he says, is that people “not get stuck.”
Sandy and Horner have been talking on a daily basis, and they praise each other for the tools they brought in support of Boulder and the surrounding community. When thinking about what cities and towns around the country need, Horner sees the crucial role Survivors Empowered has played, and can continue to play. “In a lot of ways, our society is fractured, and not connected,” he said. Networking is important to know who’s doing what, and he sees a national model as a good goal. “What Sandy is doing is what we need,” he says, and he wants to continue the mutual connections.
Horner has a grim understanding of Boulder’s new reality, although it’s uplifting to see so many people responding. “My hope from this is from gathering we can make a better response next time,” he said. “I would hope there’s not a next time, but I don’t think this is going to change suddenly.”