PARKLAND, Fla. — Under vacation-blue Florida skies, the young mourners have emerged from family SUVs and minivans at funeral after funeral, high school girls in black dresses and heels and teen boys in black shirts and pants.
“This is physically and emotionally the kind of marathon I never want anyone else to have to run,” said Ken Cutler, a city commissioner, following one of the funerals Sunday for victims of last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen people died, mainly teens.
“These are children who have never had death touch their lives,” said Cutler, 58, whose wife is a teacher who survived the shooting.
“Facing your own mortality as an adult is hard enough. I can’t imagine what it is like for a teenager.”
Since Friday, they’ve attended a succession of funerals for teachers and fellow classmates. On Sunday, they memorialized geography teacher Scott Beigel and two 14-year-old students: Jaime Guttenberg, a freshman girl who loved dancing, and Alex Schachter, a freshman boy who played trombone in the school band. Both students had older siblings who survived the shooting, relatives said.
This affluent city of gated communities, private golf courses and top-notch schools is struggling to cope with the American tragedy of mass shootings. As in small communities before them, including Newtown, Conn., and Sutherland Springs, Texas, virtually everyone here knows someone who was killed. They are mourning together like family, with processions that clog streets and services that overflow hotel event rooms.
They are also fighting back with a focused fury: Parkland’s teenagers, some in braces, have emerged since the shootings as a fearless and powerful political voice calling for stricter gun laws. On Sunday, in a round of appearances on national television, teenage survivors of the shooting, propelled by their haunting experience, announced the creation of “March For Our Lives” and what they hope will be a huge demonstration in Washington on March 24.
On its new website, the group’s mission statement says: “Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of a firing assault rifle to save the lives of students.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” 11th-grader Cameron Kasky said the movement, whose hashtag instantly went viral, aims to get beyond party politics and give a rising generation the chance to “create a new normal” out of entrenched gun politics.
“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around,” Kasky said.
But their raging activism is also mixed with quiet personal pain. At the same time that Parkland teens are trying to create a political force to challenge the National Rifle Association, they also are juggling funeral and burial schedules day after day.
Mental health specialists and others said funerals help bring closure and peace for grieving adolescents. But the sheer number has many worried about the long-term emotional damage of America’s increasingly common schoolhouse slaughters.
“These funerals can be very empowering,” said Priti Kothari, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in nearby Boca Raton who knows many of the families involved, including a neighbor who lost a child in the shooting.
“There is a lot of noise in the media and so many unanswered questions,” she said. “But in the intimacy of a funeral, you hear all the beautiful stories of these children, their vision of life and how you can carry it on.”
She said it’s notable how powerful and eloquent the Douglas students have been, spurred on by their grief.
“The adolescent brain is searching for meaning, and these funerals offer a way for them to ask, ‘How can I be of service?’ ” Kothari said. “How does this anger turn into something that’s productive?”
David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, said rituals marking the end of a friend’s life can be of great value to survivors, but the scale of this tragedy makes it particularly hard.
“Just a single death often makes us feel vulnerable,” he said. “It shakes your assumptions about the world. It violates assumptions, for example, that when your parents send you to school, you will come back home alive. When you have multiple losses, it’s even more difficult to feel safe.”
Schonfeld and his center have helped coordinate mental health responses for many mass shootings, including in Newtown, Sutherland Springs, Aurora, Colo., and Las Vegas.
Relatively little research exists on the psychological effects of mass shootings on adolescents, but one study often cited is on the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack for New York schoolchildren.
It found that of 8,000 middle school and high school students who were affected by the attacks, more than a quarter suffered from psychiatric disorders that impaired them in their daily lives. Symptoms included PTSD, major depression, separation anxiety and panic attacks, and especially widespread was agoraphobia.
The symptoms persisted even six months after the attack.
George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University who studies grief and trauma, said his research shows that the vast majority of survivors of mass shootings don’t develop long-term mental health disorders.
“Humans are resilient; they may be sad and upset afterward, but psychologically, they’re okay,” he said.
Here in Parkland, the funerals kept coming. So many people want to attend that many of the services have been moved to a large function room at a Marriott resort, a lemon-yellow complex with 30-foot palm trees and a lush golf course.
Twice on Sunday, hundreds of mourners, many of them parents and children holding hands, walked to funerals through overflowing parking lots, past hearses, black funeral limos and golfers unloading clubs. Many of them attended both services.
Cutler, the city commissioner, said the half-dozen or so funerals so far have helped this tightknit city cope — including his wife.
“The impact of this is going to be on her heart forever,” he said after Alex’s service. “But being with her friends from school, being with her community at these funerals, this is a big part of what’s going to help her heal. Help us all heal.”