Past Tragedies' Legacy

Survivors of Shootings Grieve in Stages

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

One lesson learned from the Columbine High School massacre, and the school shootings since, is this: Most people never wholly recover.

The mother of a child who was killed feels the loss, of course. So does the father of a survivor, a teacher who taught a particular student, a passerby who heard gunfire. An incoming student anticipating his first year at that school, or any school, may find anticipation replaced by fear.

"In different ways, we all suffer the loss of our assumptive world," says David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement in Cincinnati.

The most acute grief coming out of the crisis at Virginia Tech will be borne by those directly involved: relatives and friends of the students killed. Educator Barbara Coloroso, who worked with families of the 12 students killed at Columbine in Colorado, says Virginia Tech families will go through three stages of grief.

In the first, she says, the body "shuts down in shock for seven days. It is a piercing grief; you stumble through what has to be done." The second stage, at about six months, is defined by "intense sorrow. You go back to doing normal things but everything is colored steel-gray." The third stage, about a year after the event, is "sadness tempered with joy at getting on with your own life. You know you're there when it doesn't feel bad to feel good."

When students return, some will have trouble sleeping, and many will find it hard to concentrate, Schonfeld said. Final exams are coming up, and "how will a student be able to study when her roommate doesn't come back from the library? Every loud noise will sound, for a while, like a gunshot.

"Some students will feel guilty, as in, 'Maybe if I had checked in with my friend, taken him out, he'd still be here.' "

In his view, students should be encouraged to return to classes after a reasonable period but with counseling support and a lenient attitude on the part of their professors. The professors, too, will need help. "Tempers will get worse," he predicts. "The goal is to adjust and cope."

Dawson College, a junior college in Montreal, has some experience with that. On Sept. 13, 2006, a 25-year-old man in a trench coat and a mohawk haircut walked onto the campus of 9,400 students and shot randomly, killing an 18-year-old woman and wounding 19 other young people.

Five days after the tragedy, the college told students to return, and they did, in their fashion. They were supposed to return at 11 in the morning; they chose, instead, to return en masse at 12:41, the time of the shooting the previous Wednesday. Almost half wore pink -- the favorite color of the woman who died.

"They were nervous, crying, laughing, holding on to each other, and incredibly defiant," Donna Varrica, a college spokeswoman, recalls.

In the days immediately after students returned, campus counselors saw about 200 students, or 10 times the normal load, according to Varrica. The numbers gradually declined, then surged around the Christmas holidays. Most of the students who were injured -- several of them severely -- waited until January to come back. A couple of them haven't returned.

"Those kids will be reliving that experience today," said educator Coloroso. "So will the kids at Columbine."

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