SAN ANTONIO, Texas — More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2020 and 2021 than in any other years on record, and in many major cities, 2022 is on pace to break those records.
Loved ones of shooting victims often never recover from the trauma they face, but researchers found these traumas can be alleviated.
For Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, any peace of mind they can find is welcome. But since 2012, peace has been impossible to hold onto for long. They’re missing a piece of their hearts they can never replace: their only daughter, Jessie.
“Jessie was always a bundle of energy. I often describe her as a Labrador puppy. She just loved everyone, and everyone loved her,” said Sandy of her daughter.
Lonnie was Jessie’s stepdad and loved her from the day they met.
“She and I became buds right off the bat. I'd tease her a little bit and chase her around the room with an ice cube. She loved it,” said Phillips.
Their little girl grew up with dreams of being a sports reporter. When she was 23, she left San Antonio for Colorado where school and internships were waiting.
“We were very, very proud of the woman that she had become,” said Sandy Phillips.
One year after she moved to Colorado, the life Jessie was building was cut short. Just days before Sandy planned to visit her daughter, Jessie and her best friend went to the movies for a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.
“I said, ‘Okay, well, I'll talk with you tomorrow.’ And she said, ‘Mom, go back to sleep, get some rest. I can't wait to see you next week. I need my mama.’ And I replied, ‘I need my baby girl.’ And that was the last thing we ever said to one another,” Sandy recalled.
A short time later, Sandy got a call in the middle of the night from Jessie’s best friend. Her daughter was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater mass shooting.
“We were laying there with her out of her mind and me thinking to myself, ‘I no longer have a daughter and my wife is never going to be the same,’” said Lonnie.
“And our life was never going to be the same,” said Sandy.
The loss sent the Phillips into a depression they can barely remember.
“Neither one of us wanted to get out of bed. We just existed,” said Lonnie.
They found purpose by starting a nonprofit called Survivors Empowered. Now, they travel the country offering resources to other families who have lost a loved one to gun violence.
“We understand their trauma and we understand what trauma does to not only the body but to the soul. And we knew we had to do something,” said Sandy.
But it wasn’t until they participated in a research study run by Fadel Zeidan at the University of California at San Diego that they felt their own souls begin to rest.
“There's really a sense of helplessness that arises when we see victimhood from the just never-ending senseless gun violence that arises in this country. But what do we do?” said Zeidan. Answering this question became the central focus of the study he said is his most important work ever.
Zeidan connected with Sandy and Lonnie Phillips and dozens of other gun violence survivors across the country, and spent eight weeks practicing mindfulness.
They did hours-long guided meditations and other practices to help them be more present.
“The more that we meditate, the stronger that our ability to regulate our emotions and stay in the present moment,” said Zeidan.
“Immediately, we both found that we were sleeping better. And within the time period of the class, I had gone off of my sleeping medication, my blood pressure had gone down,” said Sandy.
With mindfulness training, the survivors found PTSD and depression decreased by 52%, self-reported trauma decreased by 37%, and grief decreased by 23%.
“They were able to finally be able to close their eyes and not see the trauma of their child, they were able to take the negative energy that transpired through their grief, and channel it into some more positive energy,” said Zeidan.
Zeidan hopes these findings are just the beginning.
“If mindfulness can help people that are suffering from the worst type of human trauma, that maybe mindfulness can be more beneficial for other forms of trauma and grief," Zeidan said.
“I think people think that once I learn this, I'm going to be fixed, you know, and it isn't a fix, it's a practice,” said Sandy. “You have to keep practicing it or that is going to go away, and then you're going to start all over again.”
The Phillipses want other survivors to see the peace they’ve found and know: while grief will never vanish, there is hope.
“We will never heal from the loss of our daughter. We will learn how to cope with the loss of our daughter and honor her in ways that we wouldn't be able to had we not become involved with mindfulness,” said Sandy.
Zeidan wants to connect with more gun violence survivors to conduct more research. If you are interested, CLICK HERE.
If you want to learn more about Sandy and Lonnie’s work with Survivors Empowered, CLICK HERE.