Columbine parents relive nightmare yet again
As it has all too often over the years, the news of another mass shooting conjured familiar ghosts from their own nightmare. Only this time, those images melded with horrifying new details.
Parents who lost children at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999, now share another sorrowful bond – this time with relatives of Friday’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that killed 26, including 20 students no older than seven.
“The TV shots from the helicopter, the emergency crews coming in – and at a school, a public school,” said Rick Townsend, who lost his daughter Lauren almost 14 years ago.
“That seemed to bring it home to me more than some of the others have. This has been a lot tougher; it opened up so many memories.”
And yet the difference – the shockingly young age of the victims – added another dimension to an ongoing story of violence that the Columbine families have long understood would be repeated too often.
‘ Absolutely stunned’
“I knew that it was a very unfortunate fact that Columbine wasn’t going to be the last, any more than it was going to be the first,” said Brad Bernall, whose daughter Cassie died in the attack.
“But I was just absolutely stunned, like I’d walked into a brick wall and smacked my face on it. In this situation, it truly was the age and innocence of these kids that made it different.”
The latest shooting prompted Tom Mauser to flash back to the awful scene in the Columbine library, where his son Daniel and nine others died. He grappled with imagined visions of the scene inside Sandy Hook and how those parents would deal with its horror.
Although he has appeared often in the media over the years to address the gun-control issues that became a passion after Daniel’s death, he did little in the immediate wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.
“I was just too shattered,” he said. “And I can’t say that it was so much directly Columbine that I was thinking of that day. It was just, ‘Oh my God, it’s come to this’.”
Still, he absorbs each new incident with a sense of inevitability. “It’s the nature of this country,” Mauser said. “You don’t change those things overnight, especially when you’re doing virtually nothing about it. We’re working on the edges – bullying, more security at schools – but we’re not really doing anything major to prevent things like this, unfortunately.”
He could digest media accounts of this tragedy only in small doses. When details about the victims began to emerge, the human side of the story proved more than he could handle. “I watched Obama’s speech,” he said, “and as soon as he started reading off the names, I lost it. It’s that personal connection thing.”
Patricia DePooter, who lost her son Corey at Columbine, cried as she shared her feelings. “There is nothing anyone can say to help them,”she said of the parents of the elementary school students. “It is a lonely, empty and numb place.”
Still, time and support, especially from the local community, can help in the healing process, DePooter said.
She recalled a time, a few months after Columbine, when shopping in the grocery store’s dairy section brought her to tears after she saw a carton of chocolate milk, Corey’s drink of choice.
Another shopper, someone DePooter recognised, saw her and stopped. “We really didn’t know each other, but she put her arms around me, and held me and cried with me,” said DePooter, who envisions local community support helping the parents in Connecticut. “Their greatest blessing of all is the people who love them, in their town.”
Both DePooter and Phyllis Velasquez, whose son Kyle died at Columbine, anticipate more collective soul-searching over the mass shootings as gun control, mental health, and even violent video games and films again surface in the national conversation. “Change is beginning with me,” Velasquez said. “We can’t legislate people’s minds and hearts and what they do. Let’s change our hearts individually. Let’s change our society, let’s change our values.”
Both mothers said their faith in God, and the passage of time, had helped them through dark times.
“I think of my son and the others killed every day,” Velasquez said. “I also can see the sunshine and hear the birds sing and live with the people who are around me again. But it is a process. The only way I got to where I am today is with God’s help.”
Other Colorado incidents
Columbine families now share their vantage point with other Colorado communities: Aurora, where 12 died in a cinema shooting only last summer, and the foothills town of Bailey, where Emily Keyes (16) died after an intruder held her hostage at Platte Canyon High School in 2006 and fatally shot her.
John-Michael Keyes and his wife Ellen now run a foundation called “I Love u Guys”, after the last text message Emily sent to them. They, too, appreciate the difficult road ahead as a community struggles to find its way through tragedy.
“Certainly, they’re in the spotlight in the midst of inconceivable grief,” John-Michael Keyes said of the Connecticut parents. “The age of the victims and the number of them is horrible, it just doesn’t fit. Giving the families space and support, there is a balance there. In the months that follow, their job and the community’s job is to figure out how to best move through it.” – (Denver Post)