Tornado Scars: How victims are moving past the trauma ten years later

JOPLIN, Mo. – Mason Lillard remembers it like it was yesterday.

“We get a phone call from my aunt that said, ‘You guys need to take shelter now. There’s a tornado over Joplin,'” says Lillard. “We were in the back seat and we were praying.”

Then ten year old Mason and her cousin Lage Grigsby were with their grandparents, making what was supposed to be a quick stop at Home Depot on a Sunday afternoon. She remembers being sucked into the tornado in the back of an old red pickup.

“I had a one inch piece of angle iron go through my right shoulder, break seven ribs, puncture my lower lung and come out my back a fourth inch away from my spine, and a fourth inch away from my liver. He got sucked out of the truck,” explains Lillard.

“My skull split open. So somebody came and held a purse over my head,” says Grigsby.

Mason needed multiple surgeries, and Lage spent months in the hospital, and then had to go through rehab. They’ve both made great strides physically, but the emotional and psychological toll is longer lasting.

“I would have panic attacks to the point that if it was raining I would not even get in the car,” says Lillard.

She learned that music was a great escape, allowing her to tune out the outside world during storms and bad weather. Now, her dog helps calm that anxiety.

“I now can drive if it’s storming myself, which is kind of a big overstep from being in a vehicle during the tornado,” says Lillard. “I’m doing a lot better, especially being a ten year old that went through a tornado.”

For Liz Easton, the tornado anniversary reminds her of what she lost.

“I get a little tearful because we lost some really good friends. My daughter, she lost a lot of things,” says Easton. “And everyone deals with it differently, but to some it was like a rape. Something took control over them and took something from them. And so we’ve had a long journey with that.”

But almost ten years later, she and her family has moved past the pain. Instead, they focus on the positives that came out of the tragic even, and how far the community has come since.

“So many amazing things happened and a lot of good came out of it, in spite of the sadness and the loss,” says Easton. “I am reminded each year that Joplin is amazing. The people are what make Joplin… Joplin. We didn’t sit around waiting to be helped. We came together and helped each other.”

If you haven’t come to the same point in your journey to recovery, that doesn’t mean that you’re broken.

“Everyone recovers at their pace. There is no shame in something still bothering you after two years, four years, 10 years. That’s okay,” explains Dr. Charles Doyle, a psychiatrist at College Skyline Center in Joplin.

Dr. Doyle explains that anniversaries, memorials, storms and even the colors on a weather radar can serve as triggers, bringing back the negative feelings and memories from past trauma. For those who have learned to live with the scars, like Lillard and Easton, they serve as a reminder of how far they’ve come. Dr. Doyle says that everyone can get to that point.

“We can’t really recover if we don’t engage those things and begin to deal with them and reprocess them and make them to have a healthier meaning for us,” says Dr. Doyle. “For some that might mean really engaging it purposefully. That might mean going to a memorial service or go to a grave sight or go to the property sight where you were. Or it might mean that you read some things about it or journal about it. And just sort of make it better in your own heart and your own mind.”

“If you need to care for yourself, care for yourself. That’s important. Some people deny themselves that care, saying that they should be over it, and that may not be the case at all. It may be very normal for you to be very bothered by that for maybe a great portion of your life. That’s okay. Just make sure that you’re doing something about it to make it better,” Dr. Doyle continues.

He also explains that even if you have worked through that trauma, something big like a ten year anniversary can drudge up old feelings and memories of loss. That’s normal too.

“I like to tell people, don’t let the anniversary day dictate for you what’s going to happen that day. You purposefully direct that day yourself,” says Dr. Doyle. “And that may mean that you make that day mean something very different. It could be the day that you’re going to do such and such. Or the day that you’re going to start a new tradition. Or the day that you are just going to live as normally as possible. And that’s just fine too.”

Lillard and Easton both say what helped them was their faith, focusing on the positives, and continuing to push forward.

“The journey has gone on and I wouldn’t want to do it again but I appreciate what we’ve taken from it,” says Easton.

“You’re not alone and don’t be afraid because it’s not fully your battle,” says Lillard. “It’s also God’s battle of what he wants to do for you.”