Not In My Town

In my town.png

Written by Kandice Marshall-Cunanan, LMFT

On February 14, 2018 a young man walked into a school in Florida with an AR-15 and began shooting.  He killed 17 students that day.  I have to admit that after all of these years I was beginning to grow numb.  If I allowed myself to feel anything I would have become paralyzed because I would be so overwhelmed with emotion everyday, day after day, it would never end.  Each day there is a mass shooting in our country. Each day someone’s child doesn’t go home. And not a day goes by that I am not grateful that mine do come home and for that I carry a little bit of guilt.

On February 15, 2018 I was reading my Facebook posts when I saw one from a friend of mine from middle school.  A few years ago she moved to Florida with her husband and daughters.  Typically her posts are filled with happy moments with her family but not on that day.  On that day she had written a memorial for one of the children killed on February 14th.  As I read it I began to cry.  I couldn’t stop.  I cried for everyone.  And then I realized I was also crying because I was grateful.  I was so grateful that it wasn’t my daughter, that it wasn’t in my town.  I went back and read it again, and again, counting my blessings.  So thankful I wasn’t writing a memorial about a child, a person I once knew killed in a mass shooting.  With great pain and sadness, though, today is my day. 

It’s been 10 days since 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in my town. 

November 8, 2018 was my mom’s birthday.  My family had planned on going to The Lakes in Thousand Oaks to celebrate that night.  And on November 7, 2018 when I fell asleep, around 11:30 p.m, I fell asleep thinking about the fun we would have the next day.  Ten minutes earlier 12 people in my town had been fatally shot by another young man in my town. 

I woke up that morning excited at what the day would bring.  I was excited to go out that night.   And so when I checked my phone I was not prepared for the messages I had received through out the night. 

My daughter’s message read, “There was a mass shooting by your apartment….” 

I don’t even have words to describe how I felt.  I sent her a message back letting her know that I was fine, I was shocked I hadn’t heard anything, and grateful that my brother, her uncle, wasn’t there because, like most Thousand Oaks residents, including myself, he used to go there.  She responded that she was happy her uncle had not been there the night before.  I was too.

I began reading and watching the news trying desperately to find out as much as I could about the shooting.  I realized, as I read, that there would be a strong possibility I would know someone who had been there.  That strong possibility did not include knowing the dead. 

Like most of the people in my town, I found myself driving to The Oaks to pay my respects to Sgt. Helus, who had been killed as he responded to an active shooter call at Borderline the night before.  I can’t even say why I did it.  I didn’t know him but the pain I was beginning to feel was getting worse just sitting at home.  I knew the route his body would take because it was the same route my daughters and I had sat along to watch as President Ronald Reagan’s body was take to his library in Simi Valley after he died.  I was not surprised by all the people there.  It was comforting.  While I waited for his body to pass I continued to receive messages about Borderline.  One was just a picture of a young man and a plea to help find him.

I read that plea over and over again and then I reposted it.

My heart was breaking for everyone because now it was my town.

As I read the post again I realized I knew him but he wasn’t one of the kids I used to work with he was my daughter’s friend from kindergarten. 

When we first moved back here from San Diego I worked a swing shift and I didn’t have as much time with my daughters as I had had before.  One day in the school news letter I read they were hiring campus supervisors and so I got a job there.  This way I could remain involved, as much as possible, in my kids life.  On my first day I worked in the kindergarten yard and when I walked in I was immediately greeted by another campus supervisor.  She wanted me to know that I would be watching a particular child due to a medical condition.  After that, anytime I was there I paid extra attention to him even when I wasn’t assigned to him.

Now I was looking at him as one of the missing.  I was having trouble processing the information and so I contacted my older daughter and that’s when she confirmed that the little boy and the man I was looking at were the same person.

Time was beginning to slow down.  I needed to breathe.   

Focus…..breathe in……breathe out…….Again……..breathe in……breathe out……

I needed to keep my composure.  I couldn’t fall apart with a stranger in my house.

Around 1:30 p.m. my older daughter confirmed that little boy, no, that young man had died.  I cried out and the man working in my house came rushing in to check on me but stopped short when I said, “He died!”

During the past 10 days I have had to evacuate my home because of 2 fires.  I’ve been to memorials, fundraisers, and I’ve found myself sitting on the sidewalk staring at the cross that bares his name.  I didn’t believe it.  I couldn’t allow myself to go to that place where another person my daughters knew had died.  Over time I would learn that it wasn’t 1 person my family knew at Borderline but 4 people.

Many people are familiar with the Five Stages of Grief.  For those who aren’t they are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  We don’t necessarily go through them in that order and sometimes we will return to a particular stage while grieving.  Some may never go through a particular stage, as the model was originally used to describe terminally ill patients.  I have used this model to help my daughters and clients in the past and now I realize I am also going through it.  I didn’t realize, until I was buying flowers to lay at his cross, that I was also in denial. 

Tomorrow, November 19, 2018, my youngest daughter will turn 21 years old.  Ten days ago I was so excited but now I’m sad.  During all my reading and information gathering I discovered one of the victims who died would have also been 21 years old tomorrow, too.  He will forever be 20 years old.  Today his mother had a memorial for him and I find myself Angry.

I live in a nice town. A really nice town and I’m angry that it took this for me to realize what I’ve had all along, a wonderful and supportive community filled with people trying to do right by their families, friends, community.  We are far from perfect and now my town is a statistic and not the one we held November 6, 2018, one of the safest cities in America.  Now we are known for being the city that had America’s 307th mass shooting in 2018.  The year isn’t over and everyday there is another mass shooting and that’s why I’m angry.  My heart is breaking but I am not broken.  I’m Angry that this continues to happen and the only thing we seem to be able to do is offer “thoughts” and “prayers” but I know that in the end I can say, “I tried.”  As a mental health professional, I am doing my part and now I’m asking everyone else to do their part so that this doesn’t happen in their town. #TOStrong



Sharing (and Owning) My Story


A few weeks ago I made the decision to share my story with you. I had no idea how it would be received or how it would make me feel, but I put it out there and took the risk.

I have been trying to figure out how to describe what it’s been like since then, and today I finally figured it out. I was listening to a podcast (my newest obsession) and they mentioned the Japanese art of kintsugi. You may think that you haven’t heard of it before, but chances are you have.

Kintsugi is the Japanese practice of filling cracks on broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. The metaphor has been used a million times, so forgive me for using it again, but it so perfectly describes how I have been feeling that I wanted to share it with you. I really tried to eloquently re-write the Wikipedia description of the philosophy and ultimately realized that I was failing… so instead I am just going to use their words.

As a philosophy, kintsugi can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Japanese aesthetics values marks of wear by the use of an object. This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an object around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage.
"Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated... The [changes] of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. "— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

So I know it is pretty wordy, but this is it, this is how I feel now, and it is in stark contrast to how I felt before.

Before, I felt like if I own this, if I put this out into the world people will actually see me. They will know I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, that I thought about ending my life and that I thought I was a crappy mom.

(Aside: Here’s the place that I should probably add that being open is something that is pretty hard for me as a person. I generally write about my feelings or put them into my art, but talking about them, like really talking about them, owning them, putting them out there into the world, it’s just not something I have historically done.)

But this is what I have learned, and why I’m sharing it with you today. I hit publish on that post and went into my first, of nine sessions, for the day. This is important for me to tell you, because that was me trying to hide from it. Like when you hit send on an email and close your computer and go do something else, that’s what I did. I was terrified and needed to busy myself. What were my friends, family, clients, random people in the world going to think, and eeek, they were going to see me. But then my phone, inbox, message feed and anywhere else you can reach me started blowing up. So many people, people I hadn’t heard from in 20 or 30 years, people I see everyday, family, clients, and my community, not only offered their support but also shared their stories, and their stories were soooo similar, not all the details of course, but the feelings. The feelings were all the same.

And so this is it, this is why I shared my story. This is why I owned it. And this filled the crack, the broken piece of me, in with gold.

I now know that I want you to see it when you see me. It did not make me weak, it’s part of what makes me beautiful, strong and resilient. It reminded me that we all have cracks, and that it feels good to own them. Thank you for teaching me this, for sharing your stories, and for supplying me with the gold to fill mine in.




Tips for Talking to Anxious Children About Shootings and Violence

Talking to Anxious children about shootings and violence.png

Let me start out by saying that this is not the post I want to be writing today. To date, I have “re-published” this post several times since it was originally written on December 3, 2015. Every time there is a school shooting, a shooting at a festival, nightclub, place of worship, or other place that society deems “safe,” I spend the day trying to wrap my head around how I’m going to address it in my work.

How can I help anxious mothers send their children off to school knowing that fearing a gunman is not irrational in today’s America. And how can they help comfort their own children who are scared? How can I look the children I work with in the eye and help them process something like what happened today in Florida?

Needless to say, I am tired of it. Something has to change, but until it does, I will continue to provide a safe place to talk about it and to support those affected.

And, if you are as tired of this as I am, consider a donation to Sandy Hook Promise, whose mission is to prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.

So, once again here are 5 tips for talking to anxious (and not anxious) children about shooting and senseless violence.

(Originally posted on 12/3/15)

On a daily basis I work with children whose anxiety is heightened by the senseless acts of violence that have been occurring around the world. While there is a lot of information regarding how to talk with children regarding terrorism and other acts of violence, I haven’t come across too much information on how to talk to children who are already suffering from anxiety.

If you are parenting a child with anxiety chances are you already work overtime anticipating your child’s reaction to daily stressors, so, when senseless acts of violence occur you probably worry about how this will affect your child. You may try to turn off the TV, limit and more closely monitor screen time, and not watch the news. While hiding the problem may seem like the easy answer, it is not the best one, and can increase your child’s sense of fear and anxiety when they learn the truth.

Below are 5 tips for talking with your anxious child following an act of terrorism

1.    Help restore their sense of safety at home.

Following shootings anxious children often believe that someone is going to break into their house and harm them. It is important to remind them that they are safe and that they are not currently at risk of getting hurt. Walk them around the house and show them how you stay safe at home. Let them lock doors and windows themselves, and if you haven’t already done so create a safety plan with them so that if they are scared or something bad does happen they know how to handle it.

2.    Use appropriate language and concepts.

While it is important to be honest with your children, make sure you are doing so using age appropriate language and concepts. Children with anxiety are already more fearful that something bad may happen to them. It is important to help them understand the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. Help them stay in the here and now and not create scenarios that are not real by using simple language and concrete examples.

When talking about the act of violence emphasize facts. For example, if you are talking about a school shooting, use the name and location of the school, so the child does not begin to fantasize that it happened at their school.

For younger children being brief and simple is enough. Remind them that trusted adults are there to protect them and help keep them safe. Use examples that they can relate to or understand.

For older school aged children who have a better understanding of the impact of violence follow their lead. Answer their questions as directly as possible and remind them to speak up if they see something out of the norm. Do not try to introduce concepts that are too complex or beyond their cognitive ability as this will increase their anxiety and decrease their sense of safety.

3.    Be honest about your own feelings.

Acts of terrorism make us question our safety; they scare us and make us fearful of daily activities. This type of reaction is appropriate and normal, and your children should know that. By disclosing your own feelings of sadness and fear you are helping them understand that their feelings are justified.

4.    Make time to talk

Set aside time each day to check in. You don’t have to talk directly about the act of terrorism, but check in regarding their day and how they felt. This creates an opportunity for them to share their fears if they need to.

5.    Maintain your routine.

Changing your routine because of an act of terrorism reinforces anxiety. It is important that you keep your routine consistent so that your children feel secure. If you have to change routines for safety reasons make sure to talk through the changes so that it doesn’t create additional worries.

And most importantly remind your child that they are loved and that you are there for them no matter what.

**Always remember to observe your child closely following a traumatic event. If their symptoms of anxiety remain increased and they are unable to cope with them on their own make sure to seek the help of a professional. Lori Allen, MFT specializes in treating school-aged children with anxiety, as well as offering parenting support and working with pregnant and postpartum moms. If you are in the Southern California area and need help please give us a call today at (818) 917-6596.