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When Something Traumatic Happens to Your Hometown

Apr 30, 2023

On July 4, 2022 at 10:14 am, a gunman started shooting at a crowd that gathered to celebrate and participate in the annual Fourth of July parade, in Highland Park, IL, my husband’s hometown. This horrific act murdered 7 people and injured 48 others. In horror, we watched and listened from our living room in Jupiter, FL, as the story unfolded. News reports used descriptors like “war injuries,” and “evisceration” in its narration.

When something traumatic happens to your hometown, it can have a significant impact on both the community and the individuals who live there. Emotional trauma, grief and loss, safety concerns, negative impact on businesses are some of the major devastating effects of a wounded town. In our case, especially my husband, although we did not have direct exposure to the shootings, we had a psychological proximity effect towards it.

Psychological proximity refers to the perceived distance between oneself and a particular event, person, or situation. The closer the perceived psychological proximity, the more impactful the event or situation is likely to be on an individual’s emotions, behaviors, and cognitive processes. In our case, some of our friends were present at the parade and the news made references and showed images of places we had frequented during our life there. All of these factors related to how we perceived and responded to the devastating news.

Jeff had a very happy childhood in Highland Park, IL. This special experience can create a strong emotional attachment to the place where you grew up. When your hometown suffers a trauma, whether it is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or any other traumatic event, going back can be emotionally complex.

Holding happy memories and a deep love for your hometown can make it painful to see it in a state of devastation. Witnessing the aftermath of a catastrophic event, such as damaged buildings or homes, can be jarring and disorienting, and it may be difficult to reconcile those images with the fond memories you have of the place. For us, watching Dr. David Baum, the man who delivered our son, give a horrific account of what happened was especially emotional for both of us.

A few weeks ago, we visited Chicago, after being away for 7 years. Highland Park was the first place to which we were compelled to go after landing at O’Hare. Driving on the Kennedy Expressway, Jeff noticed a Coco Cola billboard sign was removed. It had been there for as long as he could remember. How many more changes had taken place? How many things had stayed the same? We both were anxious to find out, as the tragedy of the July 4th parade not even a year ago loomed in the back of our minds. When we arrived, we decided to have breakfast at one of our favorite spots, Country Kitchen. We were pleased to see that nothing had changed- not the decor, not the menu, not even the owner! Eating at an old haunt and talking with the patrons and owner allowed us to have a renewed appreciation.

The happy breakfast inspired us to visit our first home together and Jeff’s childhood neighborhoods and schools. We rang doorbells and visited old neighbors, one being the parent of his best friend. We even got to tour his childhood home as it was under construction. Seeing all the changes and stepping foot inside his old bedroom brought back so much happy nostalgia. We went to his old Middle School parking lot where Jeff re-enacted a story of a fight that broke out between two of his friends over the weather! I filmed it and then we sent the clip to a million friends who had also been there- a few did not recall the incident, but we enjoyed the silly conversation and throw back references. We went shopping at Ross Cosmetics, a drugstore we had frequented many years ago, and enjoyed speaking to the employees as I bought lotion and other toiletries. The patrons were just as I remembered, friendly and engaging. It was emotional to remind ourselves that the gunman had positioned himself on top of their building to devastate and destroy, and yet not even a year later, we were supporting a renewed and revitalized business.

Returning to a special place that has suffered greatly can be a powerful source of healing. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with your community and to offer support and solidarity to those who have been affected. This can create a sense of unity and can help build stronger bonds between community members. Reuniting with old friends and visiting places from your happy past, watching people come together in the aftermath of a tragedy, is a healthy way to process emotions. Visiting Highland Park and witnessing the resilience of the community has deepened our love for the town, #highlandparkstrong

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