At 7:30 am on the morning of November 14, 2019, the community of Santa Clarita, CA, was forever changed. Those of us who live here know the details of the Saugus High School shooting all too well.
Our community has responded to this tragedy with a bumper crop of love, support, compassion, fundraising, and resources. Yet, despite the outpouring of the best humanity has to give, the truth remains we have become a new point on the statistical graph of school shootings in the US. "In 46 weeks this year, there have been 45 shootings. . . 32 of them were at facilities serving Kindergarten through 12th grade." (1)
How has this become the new normal in the US? As a nation, we have some serious soul searching to do. Is the solution in stricter gun control? More mental health services? Expanded school counseling? Is there possibly a dangerous desperation growing in our young men that is a new and frightening phenomenon? I don't have the answers. I do think we should look at what is working in other countries, we should allow the CDC to research gun violence, and we should put our best minds on the problem. Even if we could all agree on what to do to keep our children safe, what do we do now?
How do we move forward? Will life ever be normal again? What will the new normal look and feel like? The sad part of our story, and every community's story that has endured such a horror, is that life will never be the same. That former life has been stolen from our children and our community. It is gone. We are shocked, angry, hurt, devastated, depressed, and sad. All the feelings of profound loss are justified. But all is not lost, we can and will build a new normal together.
Some life events profoundly change you. Some we chose, some are forced upon us.
In our lives, many of us participate in ceremonies and rites of passage. Some are formalized, such as a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, a Confirmation, or a Quinceañera. Some happen as we grow up, such as a high school or college graduation, an engagement, or a wedding. In ancient cultures and mythologies, some of these significant events were known as Rites of Passage.
A rite of passage can be described as an event that happens to you, and within you, that clearly marks a place in time. There is a “you” before the event. Then the event happens, and during the event, there is some kind of transformation that occurs. Then there is the “you” afterward when you are no longer the same as you were before the event.
The three phases of a rite of passage are separation, liminality, and incorporation. Often rites of passage are thought of as cultural and religious ceremonies that move a person from one group to another, leaving the old identity behind. For example, these may include ceremonies and rituals marking the end of childhood and entry into another group, such as adults or citizens. The result is a new identity and a larger responsibility among the community. A rite of passage, when properly attended to, is a profound experience.
I suggest that a school shooting and the trauma that follows it is a forced rite of passage. It is a rite of passage triggered by unanticipated violence and often sudden death, the fear of death, the realization of one’s own mortality, raw fear and terror itself, and the endless depths of personal loss. These shootings are a forced rite of passage to those who experience them. They are a kind of rape of the psyche, a violent act perpetrated upon individuals and communities against their will, wounding them deeply and changing them forever.
So much is stripped from the victims of shootings and their communities. In the separation phase, their former life, reality, and understanding of the world are ripped away with no preparation or consent, in an instant. What is taken from the survivors in such a tragedy? Loved ones are lost, and so are all the hopes and dreams that were associated with those lives. Lost is the sense of family and community, wholeness, friendships, and the loss of a sense of safety, meaning, and everyday logic in the world. There is no way to make sense of the senseless. Survivors may feel guilty, they may lose their sense of safety and security. They may learn to live with new companions, fear and anxiety, not knowing what might happen in the next moment. Survivors may become hyper-vigilant, depressed, or withdrawn. The fear that you could die, through a random act of gun violence at any moment, can shred to tatters the meaning of plans and life goals.
Following the devastating separation phase is the second phase of a rite of passage, liminality. The word literally means "threshold." You are in between. You have crossed over the threshold of your former reality. This is the "no-man's-land" at the edge of the sea, always shifting, not all sea and not all beach. In this liminal space, time stops. You have crossed into the unknown. It is an in-between space that exists in our mind’s time, our inner eye, our soul. It is the place where we change, where both growth and death happen. It is where we mourn and let go of the old to make room for the new. It is a space that can flash by in an instant or drag on for torturous years.
Now, here in the SCV, we are in this liminal space. This is where the real work of transformation and healing happens. This is where we support each other, hold space for each other by deeply listening, by just being together and not trying to fix what can't be fixed.
The question is, how do we navigate this space in order to reach the third phase of incorporation? How do we find our way out of the maze, how do we regroup, carry on, and reintegrate ourselves back into the community as our newly changed selves?
There is one reliable guide in the liminal world of in-between that can help you find your way back to meaning and purpose. It is at the heart of all effective and meaningful rites of passage, it is the rites performed themselves. It is the ritual actions taken to facilitate the movement from here to there that can lead you. A funeral is a rite of passage that often is presented as a ceremony that honors the dead. The rites performed differ widely from culture to culture and may include music, readings, prayer, liturgy, song, dance, and more. Funerals give the living a chance to express their love and grief, while at the same time, bringing certainty to the ending of life with the love one, and the beginning of life without them. It is a moment of in-between.
But what do you do when the funeral isn’t enough? What do you do if you cannot find peace, welcome compassion, or reconcile your own survival amid so much loss? How do we release our guilt? How do we honor our own suffering and pain and at the same time, transform it and release it to become something else? How can we commemorate the event, the loss, and our pain while moving forward past the fear of forgetting and the guilt of not having done enough? Can we make sense of the senseless? Ritual is one powerful way to move through these liminal spaces.
Ritual is one of the oldest forms of human expression, it fills our need for connection to the world around us, it acknowledges the interdependency of all life, and it affirms our place in life’s grand story. It renews the deep connections of love, community, and soul. Rituals can tap into the deepest parts of our psyche, our imagination, creativity, and meaning-making abilities. Our culture, here in the U.S., through various religions and traditions, has retained many ceremonies, but not many powerful, transformative rituals. Truly effective ritual works to move your psyche from here to there, through a rite of passage. It must be deep, meaningful, and unforgettable. It must touch the deepest and most vulnerable recesses of our souls. An effective ritual makes it impossible to return to where you began.
We can and should create our own healing and transformational rituals for individuals, families, groups, and communities. These rituals can be a method for the releasing of hatred, anger, grief, frustration, sorrow, paralysis, and denial, thereby creating empty space, finally available to fill with compassion, forgiveness, healing, joyful remembrance, positive action, future plans, goals, and dreams, a space to fill with new life. The creation of effective rituals that move us out of liminality and into incorporation, back into the world of the living, is needed now more than ever. Psychologists, mythologists, and ritual practitioners working in partnership with the survivors of mass and school shootings can create and facilitate rituals to help heal our suffering. These rituals can and should be performed again and again, on anniversaries of the tragedies, birthdays, and significant dates until the sorrow and pain are transformed. The power and ability to create these rituals is within our grasp. Let’s get busy crying, screaming, burning, drumming, dancing, chanting, singing, writing, speaking, performing, and releasing so we can get busy healing, living, and reaching a new normal.
Portions of this essay are reprinted with permission of the editors and publisher from
If I don't make it I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. Eds. Archer, Amye, Loren Kleinman. Skyhorse Publishing, 2019.