After Las Vegas: What Jason Aldean + More Should Know About Moving Forward
On Thursday night (Oct. 12), Jason Aldean will begin his ascent to normalcy. His concert in Tulsa, Okla., marks his first tour stop since the Route 91 Harvest Festival — a set that ended at the hands of a lone gunman perched one quarter-block and 32 stories away.
If he's drowning in anxiety, he's not alone. His band was on that stage, too, and his crew was scattered about the venue. Members of his management, record label and publicity teams were there. His very pregnant wife, Brittany, was backstage enjoying the show, and several of the day's earlier acts (Jake Owen, Josh Abbott Band) weren't far away when the shooting began. Tatum Hauck Allsep, Founder and Executive Director of Music Health Alliance, says a quickly-put-together Oct. 4 support group and conversation brought 200 people to the room. Half of them were on the ground in Las Vegas. Forty-six people (as of Oct. 10) have been paired with trauma counselors, and that number is in addition to what Vanderbilt Hospital has done. A second and third wave of people in need of counsel is sure to come. These people heard and saw unimaginable things, but that they shared it together may prove critical in the emotional recovery.
Without asking they've joined a tragic fraternity, and the key to how quickly they recover may depend on how willing they are to acknowledge their emotions and support group. They need to know they're not alone, Kristian Bush tells Taste of Country. Bush was an active member of Sugarland when the stage at the 2011 Indiana State Fair collapsed just prior to their set. Seven people died — some there, some as a result of injuries. Six years removed, he's able to empathize in a way very few can. It's a long, slow journey that never truly ends.
I know you were on stage … but don’t go look at it," Bush says of the video. "It’s not worth it. You make up things in your head. What ifs and all this crazy stuff.
"For me I know it was months and months and months," Bush recalls. "I got to the point where I started to realize I was losing it, because music is not supposed to hurt anybody."
Dr. Jon Ebert, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, says that what Bush experienced and what Aldean experienced result in a feeling of personal and artistic insecurity. He says that restoring that safety is the very first priority.
“For the most part, we live with the understanding that we’re safe,” he says, cautiously explaining that he's speaking in a general sense and not in response to either incident. He did not consult with Aldean, Bush or any artist involved with an onstage tragedy. “I think when an artist takes the stage … there’s an assumption that there’s been checks and they’re safe. Creativity relies on that level of safety.”
A road accident or natural disaster can present a similar set of issues, Ebert says. Allowing time to grieve is very important, he adds. Bush's first piece of advice to others is to acknowledge that it happened (to this day he'll walk around and personally inspect outdoor venues), but don't obsess, and definitely don't look at the video.
"I know you were on stage … but don’t go look at it," Bush says. "It’s not worth it. You make up things in your head. What ifs and all this crazy stuff."
Ebert notes that acknowledging your stress, fear, and anxiety may mean actually saying the words out loud. Validate the vulnerability instead of retreating from the fear.
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“What we’ve heard a number of times is the sound of a jackhammer, or the life flight helicopter, or — there are trees that are dropping these nuts, and you drive over them and it makes a pop-pop-pop sound," Allsep adds. "Sounds like that have triggered a visceral response in this last week.”
Among Aldean's first public steps was returning to a small, private stage for a televised performance, and then visiting injured victims in Las Vegas. Artists who were involved are in a unique position in that they can bring healing to the hurt or the families of the dead, but not everyone can handle that pressure, and especially not this quickly. Bush was in large part prohibited from reaching out to concert-goers for legal reasons — something that compounded his grief. In a strange way, watching the community come together in response to this most recent tragedy is furthering his healing process.
“What I would say is, when you’re on an airplane and the oxygen mask drops, put it on yourself first then start to put it on others," Ebert says.
Bush eventually got the chance to reach out. As a solo artist he has tried to build relationships with the fans who were involved. "It is a beautiful feeling to hold onto a fan who was there because they wanted to hold on to you in the first place,” he says.
A hug takes two, and while the Sugarland star is emphatic in saying that anyone involved in the Las Vegas tragedy should let the people around them love on them, Dr. Ebert adds that the friends and family of anyone who has gone through trauma should fight an urge to give that person space. Most people, he says, want to engage and want to be asked how they're feeling. Fight an urge to distance yourself from someone in need. Look for prolonged effects on sleep and diet across one, three or six months.
“If the symptoms of anxiety are present and they’re at the level where they’re disrupting their relationships, their functioning, then getting an assessment would be appropriate," Ebert tells Taste of Country.
"I didn’t understand the weight of what that was until you have to carry it around," Bush adds. "It kind of got pointed out to us from a friend who works with Pearl Jam." In 2000, nine Pearl Jam fans were killed at a rain-soaked show at Roskilde Festival in Denmark. The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles of Death Metal and Great White are others that are part of this fraternity. Billy Currington knows, too — in 2009 a stage collapse killed one of his fans at the Big Valley Jamboree in Alberta, Can.
A sense of community among these artists, crew and their teams is crucial. At the Oct. 4 meeting — just days after the death of more than 50 country fans at Route 91 — Eagles of Death Metal drummer Julian Dorio spoke about that network, his continued counseling and how it affected his wife. Everyone that Music Health Alliance counseled in the hours after the shooting had made that "I love you" phone call home the night before.
There's no one-size-fits all prescription for getting back to work, but the grieving and acceptance processes need to be respected. Sugarland missed one show, and Bush says that in retrospect, getting back to the stage was the right move for him because their music had messages that he needed to hear baked into the songs. At the encouragement of the mutual friend on Pearl Jam's team, the group hired a bereavement counselor and she joined the band for their first show back.
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They were able to create what Ebert calls a sanctuary of recovery. This is a space or activity that brings down levels of stress or anxiety. Forming nurturing habits is another critical piece of recovery, he says. Dr. Ebert encourages his patients to remain open to the idea that in some ways, you can be better for the experience.
“We start to integrate this traumatic experience into our past and it can be used as a way to reach out to others, to be resilient," he says. "To have a sensitivity to the suffering of others.”
As an artist and songwriter, Bush was aware of this, and aware of the inverse relationship between high stress and art. He focused on creating music that would help him get through tomorrow instead of songs that revisit his past. You'll never hear a song about the Indiana State Fair tragedy. Instead, he worked to inch forward. And there was beauty to be found.
In 2011 Bush's kids were about five and eight years old, and he explained what happened to them so they wouldn't think it was normal and fear for their father's safety. Because of the nature of the tragedy and subsequent investigation, it was some time before the band could get their destroyed equipment back. It led to a moment of great healing that epitomizes the idea of letting those around you love on you.
“I had a mandolin that got smashed in all these pieces and I opened up the box and was like ‘Awww, I don’t wanna look at this,’" Bush says. "I just kind of left it in the front room and when I came back a couple hours later and my daughter had pulled all the broken pieces out and made a peace sign on the floor."
"I was like ‘Are you kidding me? ... I couldn’t get my head around how compassionate people could be about all of this," he says.
Every person who was in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 will respond differently. There's no universal prognosis or prescription, Ebert says. Some will feel survivor's guilt, others will not. Some will experience high stress an anxiety from everyday sounds or not be able to watch movies they always loved — others will not. Some will experience wounds for years. Others will not. But Bush says the world will suddenly look very different.
"That’s OK. It’s kind of how the world works, but I feel for everyone in a way that I guess only people that have gone through something similar can understand," the singer says.
A representative for Jason Aldean declined an invitation to participate in this story. Dr. Ebert recommends the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for additional resources on how to talk about this tragedy with children. Allsep wants people to know financial resources do not need to be a factor in treatment. Her organization specializes in helping people within the music industry, but there several free counseling lines that were quickly set up by groups like Magellan Health, Optum and the United Way.