Readers of The Iranian may be familiar with Dr. Shiva Ghaed, the psychologist, writer, and advice columnist who has been answering our reader’s questions over the last few years. She’s covered topics such as gay-acceptance in Iranian families, dating in the Iranian community, and other nuanced cultural insights with a frequent focus on romance.
These subjects have nothing to do with the article you are about to read.
Dr. Ghaed is a proud country music fan (who is more than happy to tell you why, as seen below) and, as such, found herself at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on October 1st. An annual destination for country music fans, Route 91 has been running since 2014, with 22,000 attendees at this year’s event; this contributed to its new distinction as the site of the deadliest mass shooting by an individual gunman in US history. Dr. Ghaed was there, and lived to tell the tale.
While American news outlets, federal investigators, and commentators have come up with minimal insights to offer to the public, it’s ultimately left to the victims and survivors to parse the tragedy on their own. This means reckoning with trauma and progressing through an extended period of mourning, as the lives of those affected continue to process their pain and confusion even as the nation’s headlines appear to have largely moved on. As a working psychologist with specialization in trauma and PTSD, Dr. Ghaed feels a complicated sense of gratitude and purpose in her own survival through the harrowing event, in that she is uniquely equipped to help the healing.
In the San Diego support group she organized for “Route 91ers” (a phrase she used in our talk), survivors and family members of the deceased have been coming together weekly to socialize, reinforce each other, and mend. With Dr. Ghaed’s guidance and a collective of the bereaved, the Route 91ers approach each new week in the aftermath of an American disaster.
The Iranian thanks our Dr. Shiva Ghaed for answering some questions about the group, as well as what’s changed—or hasn’t—in the past month since the incident.
The Iranian: From a distance, it seems like the media has barely even mentioned the massacre lately, in spite of the fact that it’s the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in recorded US history. Do you have any ideas as to why this is? Do you think any of it has to do with how a nation is choosing to recover or process trauma as a whole, like a defense mechanism on a macro scale? Is it avoidance or just plain ignorance?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: I’m so encouraged that some people are asking this incredibly important question. I’ll be honest…it’s VERY unsettling that the news/media absolutely ghosted Route 91 after approximately one week of news coverage. And nobody has really pressed it! Curious, no? It’s funny because sometimes I think the obvious is so close to us that we miss it.
Reminds me of the more recent would-have-been “revolution” in Iran….we heard about the riots, Neda, and then….nothing. It just went dark. That’s got to make anyone suspicious, no? And trust me Leo, I’m not a cynical, jaded, mistrusting person by nature.
I have faith that in the very near future, the TRUTH will be revealed. Too many people are asking questions, and too many people know things that have not gone public. It’s only a matter of time. I have faith that we will have answers soon. I have faith and I hope.
The Iranian: What have you found to be the most challenging aspects to the recovery goals of your group? Were these aspects a surprise to you at all?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: The most challenging aspects about this support group…hmmm…good question…maybe how many people have NOT shown up?! We all almost died together, and in a sense, that is an intimate experience that simply cannot be matched by any other. And yet, so many, and even some of my close friends, have not shown up. In fact, I still have not seen any of my friends that I was there with, and it’s now been 5 weeks. We used to text each other several times per week just to coordinate meeting out at night socially, and it’s just been crickets since Vegas. I appreciate that we all have our own healing process, but that has been saddening to me. And I just miss them.
I’m trying to be patient and compassionate. Also, just knowing that some people are not coming because they are avoiding (because it feels better in the short term), and having the knowledge that this will make things worse for them over time….that has been difficult for me. This is my country family. The country music and dance scene and its stable community have served as MY refuge over the past four years.
Also, one challenge with all of the people I have worked with in my professional life, and also in the support group, is simply the power that FEAR holds. It is after horrific events such as the Las Vegas massacre that you recognize how incredibly hard-wired and driving the emotion of fear is for people.
The Iranian: Have people joined your group who weren’t actually there, or are a family member of anyone who was? If so, what has their communicated experience been?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: There have been only a few family members of Route 91ers that have attended the group meetings thus far. The support group has been open to attendees but also loved ones of those attendees because I recognize that you do not necessarily have to directly experience trauma to “experience” trauma. What happens to a loved one, happens to you. I keep reminding group members, because the father of two daughters who has come in, and the husband of a woman who was there…tend to minimize their experience. Often the person who was NOT involved directly in a traumatic event can end up feeling helpless/powerless, and this can be a highly distressing experience for those individuals. This is especially true when the family member who was exposed to trauma begins to cope in unhealthy ways. Then, the loved one is forced to witness their traumatized friend or family member decompensated, likely what it might feel like to watch someone you love stand on the train tracks but you are powerless in pulling them to safety.
For those individuals, learning how to simply exist mindfully in the same space as their traumatized loved one can be the most helpful approach. Hopefully that make sense? As an example, I was myself in the thick of things at Route 91, but I still had some degree of control over hiding, running, etc. I truly cannot imagine how it must have felt to be my sister on the other end of the phone frantically trying to reach me. I can honestly say even after experiencing such a horrific ordeal, I would never trade places with her—first, because I would never wish such an experience on a loved one, but also because I believe she was in the worse position.
The Iranian: What do you think the media got most wrong in their coverage? Or, have you specifically made a point to avoid consuming any of the coverage?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: The media stopped. That’s what they got wrong. They just STOPPED. They stopped asking questions, demanding answers, probing, digging, challenging. Over 500 people were shot, injured, and killed. Those are simply the visible injuries. And there are more than this number.
Just in my group last week I spoke with someone who did not want to burden the hospitals with a minor injury (from shrapnel), so she never went, and never reported. She is a nurse, so she took care of it herself. Another of my friends never sought care for his injuries (non-gunshot) because he also did not wish to detract from the “really serious” cases that needed attention at the hospitals. The REAL number is much higher than what was finally published. I guess you may have inferred already that I have definitely NOT avoided the news or reports. I haven’t been super excited to watch new videos that are posted by fellow Route 91ers who are finally ready to post, because it’s painful, and evokes a profound level of sadness. But I follow one of my own “Bucket Rules” and I do it anyway, because I know avoidance is the worst thing to do right now.
The Iranian: When did you start listening to country music?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: Hahaha. I actually started listening to Country music waaaaay back when, in my 20s, when I was in school at the University of Maryland (working on my second BS, in Psychology, in preparation for applying to graduate PhD programs in Clinical Psychology). Hmmm…and there it all comes full circle, doesn’t it?
I fell in love with artists like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd, Lonestar, and many more. I think one appeal of country music is that story-telling aspect. Songs typically include full sentences, and often even grammatically correct ones, but they tell stories. And they tell stories about peoples’ lives. Universal truths…about the excitement of falling in love (like Lonestar’s “Amazed”, Florida Georgia Line’s “HOLY,” and John Montgomery’s “I love the way you love me”), the pain of love lost (e.g., check out classics like Crystal Gale’s “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and Willie Nelson’s “Always on my mind,” all the way to the more modern songs like Garth Brooks “The Dance,” and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”), the challenge of an honest hard life (like Jimmy Buffet’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and Josh Thompson’s “Beer On The Table”), having faith in the midst of life crisis (Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”), how you feel at the end of a long day of work, the heartache when your child grows up (Kenny Chesney “There Goes My Life”), the insignificance of material things and the importance of human relationships (Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” and Kristian Bush’s “Trailer Hitch”—watch the video for this one…it’s awesome!), funny songs about everyday human experiences (Bill Currington’s “Like My Dog” and Jon Pardi’s “When I’ve Been Drinking”). Country music is about as honest as it gets. It capture life and people’s stories in ways the modern songs simply do not.
Think about even popular artists like Britney Spears, who catapulted to stardom with “Hit Me Baby One More Time”…really? I rest my case.
Okay so, back to your question. I fell in love with country music in my 20s, but then took a detour to bask in every genre of music you can imagine for at least a few months to a few years each (except perhaps very heavy metal), and then after the Latin dance scene in San Diego (which I have been a part of since 2002 when I moved here!) began to wane and morph into a less conducive environment for social dancing, I found myself alone. Most of my friends got married, and many moved away. I literally did not have a friend to go to dinner with, and I decided to change that. I realized I would have to find a new “home” and I thought I’d take a chance on [San Diego country bar] In Cahoots.
I was motivated to master this form of dance despite how directionally challenged I am, which is especially challenging for the line dancing. In that first couple years I was typically out dancing six nights/week (hahaha they are closed on Monday nights). This became my safe place, dancing was my therapy, and the people of this community became my “family” and friends in San Diego. Perhaps people did not always know what I did for a living or other details about my life, but they greeted me with affection and genuine care and a hug, night after night. If I came in looking a little less chipper than my usual self, someone might ask how my day was and why I looked tired. My country community has borne witness to my life. Period.
Isn’t that really all it’s about? Isn’t that why we all need friends, and we seek a more consistent life partner? We seek someone special or intimate groups of friends to essentially “witness” our life. If we live alone…perhaps the best analogy is the trite one about the tree falling in the woods but nobody hearing it.
The Iranian: It’s been a month. What has changed, in the world and in yourself, that you’ve recognized?
Dr. Shiva Ghaed: In more recent years, because of life’s trials and tribulations, I have lived increasingly in a state of gratitude. I’m acutely aware of the importance of our human relationships, and I rarely take this for granted. This Vegas ordeal has simply confirmed once again to me that we heal through our relationships with other people. Every so often life presents a reminder of just how precarious and unpredictable life actually is, and this, like other events in my past, has served to do this. Nonetheless, I hope that this does not negatively impact my inherent sense of optimism and my overarching belief in the goodness of people.
In regards to other changes? Stay tuned.
You can now download your copy of Dr. Shiva Ghaed’s new book: ‘ROUTE 91: Healing from Mass Violence & Trauma‘