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« Sarah's Favorite Things | Main | Dealing with Self-doubt and Conquering My Fear »

I Survived A School Shooting 

The memorial garden at my high school.

On December 1, 1997, a very disturbed young boy walked into the lobby of my high school and began shooting. He killed three girls and wounded five others. I was 16 years old. I had gotten a ride to school that day and we had just pulled into the parking lot when a friend approached yelling the news. There had been a shooting. I remember the confusion as we pieced together what had happened. I remember the fear as we sorted the truth from rumors and the anger as we faced the unfairness of it all. I remember the moment I realized truly terrible things happen for no reason at all. 

Every time there is another school shooting, like the recent tragedy at Chardon High School, I think about that day. I remember after the shooting at Virginia Tech I saw an interview with a student there. She said, "It's gonna be so hard to walk back into class and trust that nothing bad will happen."

I can honestly say I know EXACTLY how that girl feels. I read that and realized since December 1, 1997, I have never really trusted that nothing bad will happen. I have a profound understanding that in one second your entire life, your total understanding of what is reality and what it is not, can change forever.

As a result and for a very long time, I was terrified of losing a loved one in a tragic way and I thought about it more than was healthy. When we lived in DC, our metro stop had two street exits - to the right was the grocery store, to the left was our apartment. Often, Nicholas and I would part at the top of the escalators. He would go to the store. I would go home. Every single time I would think, "This could be the last time I see him. He could die crossing the street on his way home."

I was telling this to a group of girlfriends months before Griffin was born when I realized how abnormal this was. I could see it written all over their faces, "Oh my God, why does she think like that?"

So, I decided to go get help. I was tired of being scared. Also, I was afraid feeling this way about my child would paralyze me. Plus, my issues were mine alone. It wasn't fair to weigh down a tiny newborn with my fear and anxities.

I spent the next couple of months in counseling. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. My counselor told me I had not had a normal introduction to death and therefore, my thought processes surrounding death were affected. I realized that I had been desperately trying to protect myself from that moment - the sickening, stomach-dropping moment when you realize everything is different. The life you were living is no more. I thought if I could anticipate it it wouldn't hurt as bad.

But that's ridiculous.

Even if Nicholas had died in some tragic accident on the way to the store, would it have really been easier because I had anticipated that exact tragedy moments before? Of course not. 

Pain is pain. You cannot anticipate it. You cannot protect yourself against it. 

I won't say I'm cured. I still catch myself imagining the worst. What if one of the amazing creatures that inhabit my life were no longer? How could I survive? But, in that moment, I take a deep breath and remind myself not to waste the beautiful worrying about the ugly. I remind myself that life is precious and fragile but that I cannot prevent or protect against its inevitable breaks and fractures. 

December 1, 1997, taught me that. 

~ Sarah Stewart Holland 

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Reader Comments (5)

I remember all those times of you'd tell me "Mom you just don't understand" , now I do. I didn't experience the shooting as you did, therefore I didn't have the same fears as you did. But, we do learn from all those experiences and they make us stronger. I love you and you make me so proud to be your mother.

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYour Mom

I dated a victim of the shooting you're referring to for almost two years. He was actually in the building. He was shot. In the head. I remember going to your high school and seeing his name in the memorial garden. I didn't even know he was involved in it until that moment. He's an amazing man today and I don't think he lives his life in fear. He's been an advocate for gun control and spoken to national audiences on the topic. I know it changed his life too. He lives with an actual scar from it - 13 staples in your skull will do that - and I'll always admire the strength he's shown in the wake of that tragedy.

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA.S.

Thanks for your comment. In truth, the REAL survivors are the heroes of this tragedy. In almost 15 years, I have never stopped being proud of how my fellow classmates who persevered and thrived in the face of serious physical and emotional trauma.

March 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSalt & Nectar

For better or worse, I went to a public school system where the possibility of such violence was the norm (I can remember at least three or four times—in elementary, junior high, and high school—being locked inside classrooms as gang violence and drive-by shootings were taking place on our school campus. Miracuously, no one got hurt at school due to these incidents...although I know people weren't so lucky beyond the borders of the school.

Because I had to live life and continue on in a positive way, it never occurred to me to think "what if...?" or that something bad was going to happen...it just was the way things were. And then there's no bubble to burst, either. I also think the difference with the violence I grew up with is that it was targeted at others involved in criminal activities, not random strangers. And I feel that random acts of violence can be that much more unsettling since there is no reason for the action whatsoever.

Anyway, all this is to say, is that I have never thought about these events causing trauma or PTS for an individual who didn't immediately witness the event or suffer the direct harm (e.g., victim, parent/spouse/child of victim). Nor So, it's opened my eyes and reiterated the importance of empathy and compassion ALWAYS.

I'm glad you've found a way to move past and turn a sad situation into one that makes you stronger.


March 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSalt & Nectar

Thanks Mom :)

March 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSalt & Nectar

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