How Life Goes On

By Tom Mauser
Sunday, April 22, 2007


I can relate to the horrible pain felt by so many parents of the Virginia Tech victims. Eight years ago, I lost my 15-year-old son, Daniel, at Columbine High School.

Like the rings emanating from an earthquake, this latest school shooting has affected many lives. The parents and friends in the epicenter have been shattered by the loss of a loved one and will progress through the stages of grief. Students who survived may face "survivor's guilt." The community will feel torn as it hears of lawsuits and accusations that police, the university or others failed to prevent the massacre.

These experiences will be painful, but they are also natural, expected and necessary. As much as possible they should be viewed as challenges rather than burdens.

I suggest that all those affected by this tragedy, regardless of how far they are from the epicenter, acknowledge a few things. First is the need to remain focused on grieving for the people whose lives were cut short last Monday, and not be too distracted by anger and accusations. There will be time for that. An important part of that grieving is talking -- whether it is talking to a grief counselor or a friend or explaining the tragedy to one's child. Next is the need to understand that we all grieve differently, and that we shouldn't let other people tell us how to grieve.

I think it is important to avoid referring to the killer by name or ethnicity. He should be simply "the killer." He should be afforded no special recognition, for he deserves none. Instead, the names of the victims should be mentioned often, and their loss should never be forgotten. We best honor them by celebrating their lives, reading about their accomplishments and doing good things in their name.

The families in tragedies like this can expect a barrage of media attention. It's important for them to recognize that they have no obligation to speak to anyone in the media. It's their choice and nobody else's. Some people may be comfortable speaking up, others may not. For some, speaking about one's own experience may provide some comfort, while for others it may worsen the grief. And if some do choose to speak up, there is nothing wrong with answering only the questions with which they are comfortable.

Many things can advance the healing process. The families of the Columbine victims formed Healing of People Everywhere (HOPE), with the goal of raising enough funding to remove the library where 10 of our children were killed, convert it into an open atrium and build a new library. HOPE successfully raised more than $3 million and met its goal.

As a result of that work, the victims' families developed special bonds. I pray there will be opportunities for the Virginia Tech parents to meet and share their grief. After all, nobody else knows what you're going through like those who've suffered the same loss.

The families of the victims also found healing through adoption, mentoring, charitable projects and becoming spiritual leaders.

A number of things aided my family in the healing process. Shortly after the Columbine massacre, we established a Web site ( on which we tell the story of our son's life in words and pictures and describe the things we have done in his memory. Through the Web site, we continue to receive touching words of condolence and reflections on Daniel's life from all over the world. We also found much healing in adopting a baby from China, and in raising money for college scholarships and the construction of both a school and a library in Guatemala.

Our adopted daughter, Madeline, who is 7, has brought great joy to my wife and me and to our 21-year-old birth daughter. We don't see her as a replacement for Daniel; no one can be that. We felt that the time we would have given to nurturing Daniel could be given to another child who needed it. We often talk to Madeline about her wonderful brother. She knows he is dead, but we have not yet told her how he died.

Our faith in God also helped us in our healing. I feel strongly that we should ask ourselves whether our loved ones in heaven would want us to be in perpetual and agonizing grief. I think not. I believe they would want us to be in a better place, here on Earth. So while we should mourn because of our profound loss, and should not hesitate to do so, we also should not become so despondent that we allow our lives to be ruined by grief.

Because my son was so engaged in social issues in debate class and spoke to me about our nation's weak gun laws, I also chose to honor him by becoming an advocate for stronger gun laws that address the issue of our shameful rate of gun violence in this country.

Those who lost loved ones will probably find it especially hard to deal with their child's birthday, with Mother's Day, Father's Day, holidays and, of course, April 16, a new anniversary they will never be able to escape. There will be mundane events that generate a profound sense of loss. It can be as simple as driving past a place they once took their child for a ballgame, or thinking of a place they've been to and wishing their child could have seen it, or seeing a child whose profile reminds them of their own son or daughter.

And they'll feel additional pain the next time there is another school shooting. For, sadly, there will be more. That's why we should dedicate ourselves, in honoring these children who lost their lives so senselessly, to do more to prevent future school shootings.

We can do so by better educating ourselves about how to understand when a person is potentially signaling an intent to commit violence. We can do so by finding more effective ways to directly intervene in the lives of disaffected and alienated youth, offering more mental health counseling and putting more pressure on our institutions and media to reduce the numbing celebration of violence. Sadly, because we are such a large, impersonal society that values its individual rights and privacy, and one that often discourages social intervention, it will be very difficult to accomplish all those tasks. But that is no reason to give up.

We should not continue to be so surprised by these violent acts and to blame them on the younger generation. We must face the fact that to a large extent our youth are simply modeling us, reflecting the violent and uncivil society we have made. And we cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the living room. We must face the fact that we are unique in the industrialized world in that we have the weakest gun laws, poor social attitudes toward firearms, the highest rate of firearm ownership, the most lethal types of firearms and, not coincidentally, by far the highest gun-death rate.

If having more guns and fewer restrictions made us safer, we should be the safest nation in the free world. Clearly we are not. It is time for change.

Whenever I speak at events on violence prevention, I wear my son's shoes -- literally. Daniel wore the same size shoe as I, so on these occasions, I put on the tennis shoes he was wearing the day he was killed. It's a very humbling experience. I do it to symbolize that I am walking in his place to promote a safer world. And I do it to impart the message that no other parent should have to be in the tragic position of walking in their child's shoes.

And yet today, several dozen more parents are doing just that. I can only walk with them.

Tom Mauser is president of the board of the gun control group Colorado Ceasefire.

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