8 Years Later: On coming to terms with painful experiences

A tragedy can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone.

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of acts of terror, loss of life, school shootings, and trauma.

My name’s Ash. I study linguistics, I enjoy making music, and when I was 13, I almost lost my life in a terrorist attack.

It was July 14, 2016, and I was on vacation in Nice, France with my family. Along with tens of thousands of other people, we were attending the Bastille Day parade on the Promenade des Anglais. But the fun ended quickly at half past ten in the evening, when a 19-ton truck plowed through the crowd right in front of me, taking 86 lives.

86 lives that will forever remain unlived; 86 people that will never get to experience the joy of living again; 86 tragedies.

This experience is a big part of who I am now. I’d like to share with you my story of coming to terms with what happened, and some lessons I’ve learned on the way.

Lesson 1: It’s okay to feel things.

In the aftermath of this horrific event, I found myself grappling with feelings I hadn’t felt before. Unspeakable fear, anger, grief, confusion, injustice, and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. I felt it in my throat and stomach, and it didn’t seem to go away. I felt uneasy, nauseous, anxious — like a part of me was missing.

And that’s… okay.

Understanding the complexity of my emotions was my first step towards getting better. Sometimes, we feel like we’re encouraged to push aside discomfort and put on a brave face, but the truth is: it’s okay to feel things.

Over time, I realized healing isn’t about erasing the pain, but acknowledging it, learning to coexist with it, and eventually finding ways to evolve it into strength.

Lesson 2: Don’t drown in your sorrow.

It’s easy to get lost in your pain, and even find comfort in it. Self-pity might seem like an inviting refuge — but it’s a subtle trap that can lead to an endless cycle of despair. You can’t let your trauma define you. You can’t get stuck in the past, thinking about what could have or should have happened. You can’t accept sorrow as your normal. You can only start to feel better if you try; and that’s hard, but necessary. You need to focus on getting better in the present and on your path forward.

Lesson 3: Bad things happen to good people.

The feeling of injustice didn’t go away. Why did this happen? How did the 86 victims earn their fate, how did I earn mine? How is this fair?

As I tried to approach my emotions as objectively as a distraught teen could, I realized: it isn’t. None of the victims or those who saw it happen had done anything to earn our fate.

Imagine you get diagnosed with a serious disease. Or something else happens, as simple as your insurance not being willing to pay out a claim and a lawsuit not being worth the hassle. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do. Bad things happen to good people and the world isn’t fair.

Lesson 4: It wasn’t my fault.

I also felt immense guilt after the attack — first, for being one of the lucky ones to have survived at all, then for not noticing the truck sooner and saving a life. There was this little voice in my head asking me why I deserved to survive while others didn’t, telling me I should have done something.

Later, I found out about survivor’s guilt. I read accounts of Holocaust and school shooting survivors, and though their experience was very different, their feelings were strangely familiar. Learning about this helped me realize where my feelings came from and to separate the rational from the irrational.

I hadn’t survived because of some choice I made. I’m not at fault for the deaths of others.

Lesson 5: Trauma can’t be compared.

Trauma is a deeply personal thing. While it’s healthy to seek people who have gone through similar events to grow and heal together, you can never compare it.

What difference does it make if a person drowns in their bathtub or Loch Ness?

Everyone’s trauma is unique, shaped by so many factors, and everyone’s pain is valid.

Lesson 6: There’s no shame in getting help.

Reaching out for support is a sign of strength, not weakness. Admitting to yourself that you can’t do this alone takes courage.

Talk to your family and friends, and if you feel like it might benefit you, therapy is a great option.

Hearing other perspectives on your feelings and experiences is important, and it will help you learn things about you that you’d never think of by yourself.

Lesson 7: You are not alone.

There will always be others who have gone through something similar. Recently, I met someone who had witnessed the same sort of attack in Barcelona just a year after what I experienced in Nice.

Find your people and talk to them. Join support groups or online communities.

Sharing my experiences and listening to others share theirs helped me realize I’m not alone in going through this. And that gave me strength to push forward.

Lesson 8: Healing isn’t linear.

Recovery and healing aren’t straightforward paths. Progress will be slow and involve setbacks, and your emotions will change unexpectedly.

It took me a long time to feel normal again. There were good times and there were bad times. In fact, the worst times happened years after the attack. And that’s normal.

Lesson 9: Cherish life.

Carpe diem or memento mori?

Why not both?

Life changed for the better when I struck the right balance between the two. I don’t put myself in danger or do stupid stuff, but I make the most of every day.

I’ve learned to enjoy what I have, to say yes to things I wouldn’t have said yes to before, not to wait to try new things. Dessert first, main course second — what does it matter? Get the more expensive cheese. Ask them out. Buy a guitar, so what if you don’t learn to play it? Try stuff and see what you like, that’s what life is about.

Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who seek them.

Thank you for sticking around. This might be the most personal thing I’ve ever shared online, but I felt the need to get this out of my system: there was a shooting at my university recently and even though I was at home when it happened, my old feelings resurfaced, coupled with immense grief for the victims and those close to them.

If my words help even a single person find their feet in a new uncertainty, I’ll be happy.

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8 Years Later: On coming to terms with painful experiences