Last spring, we brought together a group of gun violence survivors who wanted to tell their stories. Each writer received months of storytelling coaching and in-person writing workshops. Today, we publish their powerful collection here on our site and in partnership with an exciting group of media partners, including the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, South Side Weekly, and Block Club Chicago. 

When I first pitched this idea to my editors, I knew our first year of working with survivors would be filled with lessons and mistakes. I learned that it’s not just me who struggles with talking about grief and loss. As one art therapist told me, “We don’t do grief well as a society.”

Over the course of the year, many survivors told me that people don’t seem to know how to address them. They expressed this by talking about their own experiences, and, at times, gently correcting me. These lessons can be useful for everyone. So, to better understand what goes right and wrong in these interactions, and to help people talk about this difficult subject, we spoke to nearly 20 survivors about how they would want to be approached.

Below are a few tips that I learned, and that we think can be useful to you. This isn’t a catch-all list, and everyone has different preferences. But some key lessons include giving survivors and their loved ones a sense of control over the conversation, looking for cues, and being direct when warranted — not speaking around their loss. It’s tough but simple at the same time: Ask them, with compassion, what they want. But don’t think too hard about it. Most survivors we spoke with just want to be seen and heard without being treated like they’re from another planet.

Just because someone sees the value in telling their story, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for them to share. In our application form for the cohort, we detailed our goals, the support we could offer, and the difficult work a process like this would entail. We asked for applications from people who not only wanted to share their stories, but who also felt they were ready to do so. We thought that, with such a self-motivated group, it wouldn’t be that hard to get started. But we quickly learned that even if someone feels their narrative is important, they’re not sharing it because it feels easy or comfortable; they’re sharing because they want to improve the conversation around gun violence – even if it comes at a cost to them. They’re choosing to relive their trauma in order to make gun violence a more human and specific issue. To make it harder for people to look away.

I also learned that feeling ready is relative. Just because someone felt ready to share their story at the beginning of the process didn’t mean those feelings were permanent. They varied from one day to the next. Things like birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries all influenced people’s willingness to delve into the hard stuff on any given day. Several members said they didn’t realize how difficult this process would be until they were actually in it. 

As we plan for another year of working with survivors, we’re thinking more deeply about how to better prepare them as writers on the front end to make the process easier. It’s worth keeping in mind that people will want to talk about their loss on some days and not others; don’t assume that speaking once is an indefinite invitation to dive into their stories at any point without their renewed consent.

Meet people where they are. Because most of the people in the cohort were not only survivors but also first-time writers, I knew that the process would take time. They had to work through the emotions of revisiting their trauma, while also figuring out how to capture their experiences in writing in a way that makes sense to other people. We knew that in order to do this project well, we’d have to be in it for the long haul. 

We allowed each writer the space to move through the writing process and their emotions at their own pace. We also came up with creative ways to meet people’s individual writing needs. For example, getting the first couple of words on the page was the hardest part for some writers, so we suggested they record their stories orally, transcribe the audio, and then work from the transcript as their first draft. Similarly, another person found it useful for me to interview her and then use the transcript from our conversation as her starting point. Both approaches were successful. Not everyone’s story is the same, and getting them on the page doesn’t have to be, either. 

Ask people what they need and how they want you to interact with their grief.

Accommodate for disabilities. Survivors of gun violence are often living with physical disabilities that resulted from their shooting, so it’s important to be aware of a space’s limitations and accommodations, and to communicate relevant information about entering a building. Are there stairs? Is there a ramp? An elevator? An important piece of feedback we received came from Carla Johnson, a writer in the cohort. Johnson lives with chronic pain and nerve damage after surviving a mass shooting. She mentioned the importance of having an accessible space, and letting everyone know how to access those accommodations beforehand to ease any worries they might have.

Be intentional, but don’t overthink. Don’t assume that you know what someone needs, what they’re ready for, and how much they want to engage. Give people a heads-up for what’s coming to show that they’re a full participant in the conversation. Ask permission before delving into a particularly painful topic — it lets survivors lead the way, and gives them the agency that they may lack over other parts of their lives. In that vein, make sure they don’t feel like you’re expecting them to share every last detail.

Days before each meeting, in an effort to honor the sensitivity of our topic and acknowledge the difficult emotional labor it took to discuss, I made sure the group knew what we’d talk about in-person so that they weren’t surprised. During our one-on-one coaching sessions, when it was time to discuss their shooting or the loved one they lost, I’d ask permission first. I’d let people know that my questions might be activating but that we could stop the conversation at any point. They were in the driver’s seat. We were just there to help figure out the directions. I’d try to end each conversation on a lighter note, so that we weren’t leaving the space feeling heavy, and check in with them days later.

Sometimes it’s not about what you say, but about what you do. In October, I spoke with a mother who lost her son to police violence. I asked her how she wants people to speak with her about her son and her grief. Are there any words or phrases that people should stay away from? Are there words that she’s found comforting or helpful? She told me that she’s found more comfort in people’s actions than in their words. Every year since her son’s death, she’s thrown him a birthday party with decorations, a cake, balloons, the works. The first year she did this, she was worried that people might think she was “weird” or “losing her mind.” To her surprise, her community showed up and celebrated her son’s life with her. For some survivors, actions are the best way to help them in their time of need. On an everyday basis, this means calling when you say you will and showing up as planned.

Grief is extremely personal and no individual experience is the same. Everyone’s relationship with their grief is different. It’s important not to assume that time dictates a person’s comfort level in talking about their grief. When I started at The Trace, I had a simple conception of grief. Like many people, I thought of grief solely as intense sadness and longing that becomes easier to manage over time. I made the assumption that people with more time since their loss would be more ready to tell their stories. I quickly realized how wrong I was. People whose loss was more recent were actually more open to speaking up. And those whose grief has spanned decades were a lot more guarded. Because grief is so specific to each person, it’s important to remember that no amount of time can ever dull the loss gun violence creates in a person’s life. 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list. Every person has their own boundaries and needs. It’s important to ask people what they need and how they want you to interact with their grief before assuming anything.

It took me months to feel comfortable in these conversations, and I’m still learning. At first, I was so afraid of saying anything wrong that I’d overthink everything and felt like I was coming off as inauthentic. While it’s important to be mindful, overthinking can also cause you to seem choreographed. I guess the advice here is to be intentional, but also don’t forget that you’re just a person talking to another person.