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Ten years ago, on June 5th, Aaron Ybarra went hunting. A 27-year-old with a history of mental illness, Ybarra decided to target Seattle Pacific University, a convenient setting a few miles south of the suburban home where he lived with his parents. On a beautiful Thursday afternoon during the last week of the quarter, as students were finishing their final classes, he parked his white pickup truck on the street near Otto Miller Hall and exited the vehicle with a loaded Browning over-under shotgun, a large fixed-blade hunting knife, and additional live shotgun rounds. In the moments that would follow, Ybarra would quickly claim the life of Paul Lee, a freshman from Oregon. He also injured students Thomas Fowler and Sarah Williams and threatened Tristan Cooper-Roth, whose life was only spared because Ybarra’s gun misfired. It was this misfiring that gave student security guard Jon Meis the opportunity to pepper spray Ybarra in the face and wrestle him to the ground.

Ybarra’s hunt was over within a few short minutes. But the horror of that afternoon has never been over – at least not for me, a faculty member and administrator just finishing my 18th year at SPU. The campus lockdown began after the shooting had ended, but we wouldn’t know that until hours later. When Ibarra arrived on campus, I was two blocks away, sitting in a conference room on the first floor of our campus church, Seattle First Free Methodist, conducting some routine denominational business with a dozen or so others. A few minutes after the shooting, the campus notice of an active shooter and lockdown lit up phones. The next two hours were a blur; my memories are more scenes and snippets rather than anything coherent. We prayed, texted loved ones that we were safe, and waited while the sirens kept coming and coming. It seemed as if the entire Seattle police and fire department were racing toward us. At one point, a SWAT unit parked outside our church windows, and we watched as the team unloaded, dressed in full body armor. Texts and e-mails continued to fly with more misinformation than anything useful, including a text that six students had been shot. While I loved the people I was with, I was separated from my team, who were having their own meltdown while secluded in a windowless conference room on the library’s second floor, another two blocks away.

When the all-clear came through our phones just after 5 pm, I made my way to the library. People all around were emerging from their offices into the warm June evening in a state of shock – we still didn’t know for sure what had happened and who had been hurt. When I arrived, I joined a group of faculty, staff, and students who had formed a prayer circle just outside its front doors. As I remember, this moment was a time mostly of tears, hugs, and silent prayers.

About that time, we received a campus e-mail that there would be a service at 7 pm that night at the church. The large sanctuary was full by the time the service began. A senior faculty member of our School of Theology and ordained episcopal Priest, Frank Spina, spoke, permitting us to do nothing more than lament that evening. An hour later, as we left in silence, about 100 students who could not gain entry into the overcrowded church were sitting in small circles of eight to ten on the grassy front lawn across the street, holding hands with heads bowed in prayer as the sun set beyond them. Never have I seen the body of Christ meet in such love and sorrow. It was a fitting conclusion to SPU’s worst and, perhaps, its finest day.

The following week continued to be a frenzied blur. With graduation eight days away, everyone invested in adjusting the last course requirements, making as many adjustments as necessary to help students finish the quarter. Space was needed for those displaced from Otto Miller, which would remain closed for months. Licensed psychology and counseling faculty offered free sessions. Media swarmed the campus. #Pray for SPU and #SPUStrong trended on social media. Graduation, when it came, was more than just a celebration of those receiving their diplomas. Our emotions of grief, gladness, and love were all intensified during that ceremony. We had made it through that terrible week with even stronger community bonds.

With graduation over, we began to piece together the broader sorrows for our campus. There was a delay in releasing Paul Lee’s name to inform his parents first. That first night, when Paul did not return, his floor mates brought their mattresses into the hallway, waiting for him to return, not knowing but grievously suspecting that he was the one who was dead. I would cry with my friend, Paul’s vocational discernment professor, who had just finished up her class for the quarter that Thursday afternoon and was likely the last friend to talk with him, hugging him and wishing him a great summer as he made his way to Otto Miller. Listening to the local news as they replayed many of the 911 calls, I broke down, recognizing the voice of my friend whispering through her tears in sheer panic that there was an active shooter in her building. One of my students who worked in Security came by my office to discuss Fulbright scholarships and told me how she had been asked to play the camera footage of the moment Paul was shot over and over again for the Seattle Police and FBI.

Two weeks after the shooting, with the media gone and the facilities employees bagging the wilting flowers piled outside Otto Miller, it seemed like we were finally returning to normal. But I was not and, in some ways, never would be. June 5th and the days that followed continue to haunt me. The heightened emotions I experienced in those weeks quickly morphed into overreactions that still endure. Here are just a few examples: I’m hypersensitive to sounds when I am somewhere unknown. I pay greater attention to loud noises, and unexpected ones startle me more intensely. I pray before every graduation that there will be a minimum number of air horns as each blast sets me off, and their combined effect regularly gives me a migraine by the end of the ceremony. I get very nervous in large, uncontrolled crowds, grabbing my husband’s arm while I steady my breath. Lockdown exercises almost always bring me tears. Any report of a mass shooting will wipe me out emotionally, sometimes for days. None, too surprisingly, I tend to overreact in conversations about murders, although I can’t hold a sustained conversation about the SPU shooting.

It took me about five years to recognize that these reactions were normal responses to the trauma of June 5th and the days that followed. The American Psychological Association defines any disturbing experience to be traumatic if it is intense enough to result in “any significant fear, helplessness, confusion, uncertainty, or other lingering disruptive feelings. . . . [that] often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.”1 Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who works with abused children writes that trauma can have big “T” and little “t” causes. As you would expect, big “T” traumatic events are horrendous physical and psychological acts that clearly leave physical, emotional, psychological, and relational scars. However, little “t” causes are no less valid since there is no specific cutoff point across the spectrum of severity that would warrant labeling some events as traumatic and others with a lesser category of grief, fear, or sadness.2 Trauma is not defined as much by events as by its effect on individuals.

While community can help to heal the wounds of trauma, it can also intensify its effects when experienced communally. I wasn’t just affected by my own grief, uncertainty, and anxiety but also by the pain experienced by so many loved ones around me. Everyone’s personal stories became part of the community’s stories, which became all of our stories. The ripples of grief experienced by each of us merged into a single stream, becoming ripples upon ripples, amplifying the pain and causing what psychologists refer to as emotional contagion and vicarious trauma.3 The Body of Christ had been wounded, and each of us, its many parts, suffered those wounds too.

Trauma is also very difficult to treat with traditional talk therapy. Our bodies are wonderfully and fearfully made so that when traumatic events occur, they are processed rapidly through the amygdala, a structure buried in the center of the brain, which then sends messages down the central nervous system to create the responses of fight, flight, or freeze.4 This quick reaction bypasses the frontal lobe, which could have processed the event with a more complex conscious understanding if more time and less anxiety were involved. But trauma doesn’t necessarily reach the frontal lobe for processing even after an event. Recent studies of PTSD show that the incidents causing such damaging responses tend to linger just above the amygdala in the area where daydreaming occurs, never entirely turning into memories where they could be processed by the frontal lobe and cataloged as something that happened in the past.5 Often, when I overreact, I feel as if I am having an out-of-body experience with my frontal lobe, asking, “Where did that come from?” I’ve learned over the years to listen to my emotions when these instances occur, to be kinder to myself with my reactions, and to weigh the cost of going somewhere if I know it is likely to trigger me in some way.  I haven’t conquered the trauma as much as I’ve learned how to live with it.

But my overreactions have also been a gift. I cry more easily on happy occasions and find joy in simple outcomes. I experience greater awe at unexpected views of nature. Singing, running, sailing, and swimming center me in deep gladness. I love my family more profoundly. And frankly, I’m more thankful to God. After experiencing such a season of sadness, I can genuinely say, as Jeremiah writes in Lamentations, that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” While the ripples of grief are always there, I’m grateful for the ripples of grace that continue to flow from that awful day into my life, the lives of my loved ones, and the body of Christ so richly incarnated at Seattle Pacific University.


  2. Perry, Bruce D., and Maia Szalavitz. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us about Loss, Love, and Healing (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
  3. Branson, Dana C. “Vicarious Trauma, Themes in Research, and Terminology: A Review of Literature.” Traumatology, 25, no. 1 (2019): 2–10.
  4. There is also the interpersonal response of “fawning” where people become overwhelmed, codependent, and lack boundaries.
  5. Ofer Perl, Or Duek, Kaustubh Kulkarni, et al. “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD.” Nature Neuroscience, 26, (2023): 2226–2236.

Margaret Diddams

Dr. Diddams is an Industrial / Organizational Psychologist and Editor of Christian Scholar's Review.

One Comment

  • This is the type of article that colleges and other learning institutions could include in onboarding of staff, or for summer reads. It’s not merely pedantic but pensive. Not just informative but somehow makes one feel involved–at least in applying to local responses if ever needed. Your openness and insights are appreciated. I wonder if your move from one big city to another (Chicagoland via Wheaton) kept this scenario ever before you.