June 17, 2016

Surviving Terror & the Pain of Uncertainty.

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There is so much good and some just plain wrong in our world.

As an adult it is difficult to digest the range of human behavior that torments and terrorizes others, let alone how to soothe a child in the face of these real horrors. Some children live in war zones, refugee camps and houses of hate and rape every day. My children have lived their relatively safe and comfortable nine and eleven year-long lives along the coast of Florida and the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range.

Yet, they are not inured to life’s uncertainty and pain.

They survived one of our nation’s most recently publicized US terrorist attacks (before today’s news of the mass shooting in Orlando): Boston.

Upon hearing about the Pulse Club massacre, as well as the most recent bout of deadly shootings in Tel Aviv I am speaking directly from the fluttering heart in my chest right now. Because my body is too active and alert for sleep, I write the words I wanted to express three years ago, after running the Boston Marathon instead. I had just finished the race twenty minutes before the bombs went off. My daughters, husband and brother-in-law were briefly reunited, but I had just slipped away from them to find a bathroom at the finish area. You can imagine the chaos.

Since then, there has been plenty of good and bad news in the world. But tonight, after learning about our dear friends just feet away from the terrorist attacks in the crowded, lively Sarona Market of Tel Aviv, my body remembers the groundlessness and chaos that is life.

Once again, I am close enough to be shaken, but blessed enough to be spared direct loss.

As a counseling mental health therapist I have witnessed the recovery of clients from trauma and have facilitated their healing. As a survivor of personal violence myself, I have experienced the roller coaster of living with trauma, post-trauma and the re-experiencing of trauma vicariously. Part of my experience is pure empathy, understanding directly what it is like and the other part is pure physiology. My body is more sensitive to loud noises, terror and other people’s pain.

I was edgy and distracted by the news in Israel. We are in our ninth month of travel around the world with our daughters, living and traveling in close quarters. It’s natural they will hear our conversations and inquire about our concerns. I am also a bad liar and they sensed my feigning okay-ness. I wear my heart on my sleeve and my discomfort was transparent.

They have known our friends and their children their entire lives. I told them what happened—that our friends were safe now, but were nearby when the shooting occurred in a busy marketplace in Israel. One of their sons was separated from them for an hour. He had the courage to hide and was helped by a local woman. He wisely attempted to contact his parents via Facebook messenger to let them know he was okay until they could be reunited, but the message wouldn’t go through. It was only once he and this local woman returned to the scene that they were able to reunite as a family.

Could you imagine being separated amidst the chaos of a terrorist attack?

How do you survive witnessing unconscionable acts against fellow humans?

How do you help your children recover?

When children are exposed to acts of terrorism, they are left with two lessons in life—that there are the worst and the best kinds of people in the world.

Horrible and dehumanizing acts that explode into chaos, murder and terror can only be mitigated by gracious acts of kindness, love and generosity. We see it and read about it around the world. Our pain is assuaged with strangers helping strangers and humanity rising over horror. This is how we reframe terrorism to our children. I believe in telling children the truth: that people believe in different things and sometimes act fanatically and dangerously to be heard. That some people act out when they believe they have been victims of others to make a point. The collection of individual human experiences is complicated and this is only part of it.

We were so close to the Boston bombings, we didn’t know what had actually happened at the time. Those minutes of chaos separated from my husband and girls, just six and seven at the time, felt like an eternity. I shudder to imagine my friends separated from their son for an hour in a foreign land. I felt sad that this ten year old I’ve known for his entire life had to experience this terror and yet, I feel proud of him at the same time.

Children are resilient, sometimes even more so than adults. They can be empowered by the knowledge that they can overcome hard things. He now knows he is braver than he could have ever imagined. This boy’s father expressed gratitude for all the people that helped the victims immediately following the attacks. Bad things happen, but the heroes are always there. We can teach our children that they can be heroes, too.

This heart-racing panicky feeling in my chest is familiar, yet still unsettling. It comes from decades of my personal recovery and the work I do with others. It is a groundlessness mixed with pain and anxiety, a humbling reminder that we are vulnerable.

It is also motivation to stand up for what I believe. I feel more; I act more.

I would never trade my awareness of pain and suffering for a life of ignorance or inactivity. It’s like a Zen Buddhist koan—a riddle, a paradoxical lesson with no logical or fixed answer. We live with life’s pain because, like true bodhisattvas we can relate to and reduce the suffering of others by bearing witness to their pain—not feeding into it, not inflaming it, but recognizing that this world can hurt, but it can also heal.

Terror is bad news—but there is some good news in the face of terrorizing events. We learn to be leaders and healers in challenging times. Some of our greatest leaders have emerged during the worst times of humanity. This is who we become when we don’t shrink from adversity, pain and hard times. We see warriors as of emergency medical professionals, good Samaritans, aid workers, police officers and, most importantly, ourselves. When we go through hard things and don’t give up and don’t give into fear, we become warriors ourselves. Tenacity and love are the best weapons to fight terrorism—not giving up on ourselves or each other.

Our family has been living too closely on this world journey to deny our feelings about the world news that is happening around us. We were continually asked about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Jakarta just days after we left there and we’ve witnessed armed-guards in airports, markets and at road-blocks throughout our travels. Our girls are now global citizens. They know people all over the world. They care about these people all over the world. An attack in Israel is just as impactful to them as an attack on U.S. soil.

When we returned from the Boston Marathon three years ago, the girls were asked by school officials not to talk about their experience. We were told that some parents wouldn’t appreciate their children knowing about the attacks. It was hard to stifle our daughters and tell them to deny their personal experience. We honored the school’s wishes, but never silenced them at home. They initially thought we were at war. My daughter had actually filmed the exact location where the bombs were placed, waiting for me to cross the finish line.

Thankfully they realized they missed me run by and went to find me. Just twenty minutes later, the men placed the bags that would detonate right where my daughter had been filming. Following the explosions, we were confined to the hotel, which became the incident command center. We were on lock down for two days, surrounded by every armed official, helping professional (warriors) and news outlet in what became an eerie ghost town of debris and lingering fear. Upon arriving home, the girls wanted to move to a “high rise” because they thought we were too vulnerable to future roadside bombs living in a single story home. Over time, their questions subsided and calm was restored in their minds and bodies.

The Boston Marathon was the third of the six world major marathons I had set out to run. I had planned to do Berlin the next year and London the following year, but the girls begged me never to do another marathon. I obliged at the time and put these races on hold, all the while asserting that marathons aren’t dangerous, but that indeed people can be unpredictable.

I admittedly felt a little fear about traveling to some of our more remote destinations that don’t have an overwhelming love for Americans prior to leaving on our nine-month world journey this year, but our desire to meet and greet the world won. The Tokyo Marathon was a part of the plan (number four of the six world majors for me). We would travel for five months leading up to the race and answer many questions about safety, the ultimate koan, throughout the year. My daughters accepted my decision to run the Tokyo Marathon and thankfully, it was a safe and redemptive experience for them. Reframing experiences and giving children new meaning is important for developing resiliency in the aftermath of trauma. Marathons are not dangerous anymore. This is a new truth for them.

Thinking of our friends in Tel Aviv rattled all of us, and re-opened questions they still have about their experience in Boston three years later. We answered everything we could. What happened to the Boston bombers? Why did they do what they did? How did they get weapons like that? What is the death penalty?

We answered questions about Israel. Why Israel? Why hurt tourists and local families? A discussion about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict became the fodder for our dinner conversation. They asked if our friends would go back home now. They asked if we would go home if in that situation.

We wouldn’t.


We would stay because life is beautiful and painful and uncertain, no matter where we are. It’s tenderly accepting our vulnerability and showing up anyway that makes us courageous warriors every day.

We’ve all heard it be said, terrorists win if we stop living our lives. We win by being kind everyday. Although life continues to be a shaky existence that defies certainty, trusting other humans is the bravest thing we can do.

We’re all in this together.

In loving memory of those who have lost their lives to terrorism and gratitude to those who rise up stronger in the face of it.




Author: Jill Wheeler

Image: elephant journal Instagram 

Editors: Renée Picard; Caitlin Oriel

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Jill Wheeler