Triumph Over Tragedy:

What’s In Your Toolbox?

Author: Terri Davis

Photo Credit: Miranda Alam September 2019 – Las Vegas Healing Garden

Growing up, I was in awe of my dad’s workshop and all the tools he had. Everything from screwdrivers to pneumatic drills, sledgehammers and jackhammers were always available in our garage. I loved tools, figuring out how to use them, and knowing when the best time was to pull out which tool.  Trust me when I say that a sledgehammer is sufficient to take out tile flooring, but a 25-pound jackhammer does the job much more efficiently! As an educator, I teach my students about filling their toolboxes with tools that work, not just quick fix things like calculators. I want them to have tools that will serve them well, no matter the situation. Sometimes though, there are situations for which no tool seems appropriate. For me, that has never shown itself to be truer than in the days and months following the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting that took place on October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas.

When you find yourself in a mass shooting, your first thought is most definitely NOT “what can I use to fix this situation”! In fact, the only thing I can guarantee you will think is, “What in the world is happening?” Nothing seems logical, much less real, and the only thing you can do is whatever your body decides to do:  fight, flight, or freeze.  It doesn’t really matter what you think you might do because you really don’t get a choice. I grew up in an unstable neighborhood where dangerous situations always found me running home.  That night, in the midst of 22,000 people running for their lives, I froze because that’s what my body told me to do. I stood there watching as people ran by me, telling them it was only fireworks, until I was shocked into reality by a man who paused his running long enough to show me the wound that most definitely did not say fireworks had hit him. Interestingly enough, I was still frozen in place yet managed to change my words to, “Go this way.” When I finally left the concert venue, I ended up helping the mother of one of the victims that night, and finally made it home around 8am the next day, and began the long process of healing.

Two years later, I was still trying to figure out how to heal. I had tried the tools I had known to help me through other traumatic situations in my life, like ongoing counseling, trying to face the fear by going to the site, and talking to others involved. I tried writing because journaling and poetry had always been a great emotional outlet for me, but it hurt too much to put things into permanent words. I even took a chance with EMDR, but found it left me feeling more anxious and panicked for days. I just wanted something, anything, to work! Enter The Onsite Foundation.

Another survivor of Route 91 told me about a new program The Onsite Foundation was offering called Triumph Over Tragedy. I had no idea what it was about or what it would entail, but I took a chance and applied. When I was contacted about having the opportunity to attend, I was nervous and wasn’t sure I’d be able to go through with it. Talking with Kristine Jackson, Onsite Clinical Supervisor, I solidified my decision to do something just for me. I told Kristine that I knew this wouldn’t be a quick fix, nothing could be. All I wanted was some tools to help me both get through my moments of anxiety AND recognize that they were coming so I could minimize the resulting physical reactions. She told me that was an excellent goal, so when we got off the phone I booked my flight, and waited out the weeks for the workshop to begin.

I won’t tell you that going to Onsite was easy to do. As a trauma survivor, my fear of the unknown and unfamiliar environments is huge, so I was immediately on guard when I arrived. There were some faces I knew from survivor Facebook pages, but many I did not. Seeing so many people from other mass shootings had me even more on edge because I had to face the reality that these horrific events keep happening. After checking in and having dinner, we got down to the business of moving forward. Sitting in the Oak Room at Onsite in a large circle of relative strangers, we took turns sharing who we are and our reasons for being there. I was instantly nervous and guarded, so much so that even the people I knew couldn’t break through my walls. Right away, I wanted to get back to the airport and head for home. That tool of running was back in top form!

I am so grateful I was able to stay! My time at Onsite, to date, has been the most helpful part of my healing since Route 91. Triumph Over Tragedy was by no means easy, and that is okay. Anything worth having is worth working hard for, right? The morning classes with Cindy Westcott, Vice President of Clinical Services at Milestones at Onsite were amazing! I learned so much about how the body and the brain not only react to trauma, but heal from it. My small group, led by the amazing Mary Bellofatto, Onsite Guide, helped me to face some tough thoughts, and gave me six very deep friendships that I will carry with me for a very long time. The meals we were graciously served three times a day were even somehow a source of healing! (Big shout out to Mrs. Linda who always served us with a smile and encouraged us to go after what we were there to get.) Even though I never met them, the hospitality team who saw to our rooms each day encouraged us with beautiful notes and snacks. My one-on-one session with Ginny Leary, Onsite Adjunct Therapist, helped me to understand and accept why I froze that night, and gave me courage to try new things. I didn’t think it would be, but Restorative Yoga with Erin Lunn, Onsite Night Supervisor, each night was a huge gift because it allowed me to slow my mind and body enough each night to get a few hours of sleep. And the still-in-progress six months of continuing care with Tyler Hayes Rueff, founder of The Song Workshop, has provided me with more helpful information on things like IFS (Internal Family Systems), as well as given me a safe environment and encouragement to continue the healing work that is still to be done. There wasn’t a single part of the program that didn’t have something positive to it!

The process is definitely ongoing and roadblocks have come my way, but I have been able to turn them into speed bumps. They slow me down, but don’t stop me entirely, all because the Triumph Over Tragedy program has helped me to find some new tools for my toolbox. One which is extremely important is being able to be my own advocate. I am learning to not only speak my own truth, but to do so with power and strength. If I allow my own voice to be heard, my needs are more likely to be met, oftentimes by me!  

Another powerful tool is breathing. Sometimes this means actually allowing myself to breathe instead of holding my breath in difficult situations. More important is the tool I call purposeful breathing. When I feel my anxiety rising, I actively take a deep, slow breath in, pause, and then even more slowly exhale. It is amazing how much breathing can calm you down! I often use this in conjunction with grounding techniques we were taught at Onsite, some of which are as simple as standing barefoot in the grass and recognizing where I am right now. It’s also a very big part of taking time to practice a calm safe place activity, when I allow myself to visualize being in a very calm, serene, safe environment to ease anxiety.

One of my favorite new tools is, surprisingly, the happy dance! Our last day at Onsite, the entire group danced around the Oak Room in celebration of the work we had done, and the future we are reclaiming. Everyone in the group was smiling as we showed off our dancing skills, and laughed like we hadn’t in a very long time. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of the Onsite staff watching us. Their smiles were even larger than ours, which to me spoke of how proud they were of the work we had fought to do throughout the week.  It may have taken a while once I arrived home, but the happy dance is what I find myself doing when I feel like I have done something well, just for me.

There are so many other tools I learned during my time at Onsite, and I am grateful for each of them. There is, however, one tool I am extremely grateful has found its way back into my toolbox, and that is the gift of writing. Journaling is still tough, though I do it as often as I can. Poetry comes almost freely now, and it is again expressing in written form what I cannot say out loud. This is one of the things I am most grateful to the Onsite Foundation and the Triumph Over Tragedy program for because it helps me to speak my truth.  I’m also learning to have the courage to share it, so I hope this particular poem written a month after I returned home from the program speaks to you of some of what I learned and am learning on this journey.

Reflections of Me
Today I woke up and did not know
The reflection I could see.
“You’re not the same,” I heard her say,
As she stared back at me.
I saw in her the same mouth, same nose,
The tousled hair from a restless night.
But when I looked into her eyes I saw
Something that did not seem right.
It seemed forever I stood and stared
At the person I knew was me.
I just could not come to terms
With the image I could see.
I battled with thoughts of how and why,
Until tears fell from my eyes,
And I began to hear with my spirit
Words my ears could not recognize.
“I am still You.
The you that has always been.
What you see is different 
Because you are changing from within.
You’ve known fear and sadness,
And stared tragedy in the face.
You’ve struggled with a heartache
You’ve prayed could be replaced.
But today you’re moving forward,
You’re focusing on joy and peace.
The road ahead is not easy,
But I promise to you this one thing:
Your heart is worth the struggle,
To find the new you within.
The difference you see in your eyes
Shows the battle is yours to win.”
April 8, 2020

So my encouragement to you is this:  If you have survived a mass shooting and feel as if you don’t have the tools to find a way forward, or would like a few more options, please consider attending the next Triumph Over Tragedy program. The tools you will be introduced to will help you to see the light you need to get through…AND that light is within you!


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