Joe Biden was holding a town hall in Charleston, S.C., on Sunday when Felicia Sanders, a survivor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting, posed a question to the former vice president now running for president: “With gun violence comes post-traumatic stress disorder. What are we going to do about that?”
Four years ago, on June 17, 2015, a white supremacist fatally shot nine people at Emanuel AME, one of the city’s historic black churches.
Sanders was there. She lay in the blood of her son and aunt, played dead and survived. For Sanders, surviving would just be the beginning.
I spoke to Sanders about her lingering trauma and grief. Watch her story above.
Since 1966, at least 1,165 people have been killed in 163 mass shootings across the United States. The numbers are staggering, yet death tolls don’t capture the devastating ripple effects of gun violence on survivors.
In March 2018, a Post analysis found that more than 187,000 students had been exposed to gun violence at school in the two decades since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. In May 2019, a survivor of the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., took her own life after struggling with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress.
For Sanders, shielding her granddaughter in Bible study as Dylann Roof shot and killed her son, aunt and seven friends was traumatic enough. But she also has had to grapple with an unexpected casualty — the loss of connection to the church that shaped her life.
Most of Emanuel AME’s ministerial leadership died in the shooting. And as the church became a pilgrimage site for international visitors, reporters and politicians, Sanders began to feel forgotten. Ultimately, she left the church. Reverend Dr. Norvel Goff, the presiding elder of Emanuel AME and dozens of other AME churches, said he rejects the notion that the church has been nonresponsive.
What happens to the survivors of mass shootings? Their emotional and psychological wounds are often unrecognized. In reporting this story, I found that the overwhelming media attention to the killings in Charleston, the calls and acts of unity and solidarity by the church, had not translated into actual support for survivors such as Sanders. In her eyes, the church’s leaders failed to privately minister to the most vulnerable, even as they publicly called for forgiveness and healing.
After Sanders asked Biden what he would do to help people grappling with PTSD, the Democratic presidential candidate hugged her, according to the Post and Courier. He then asserted that keeping the Affordable Care Act is important because it prioritizes mental health care.
Politicians and members of the media are now becoming more familiar with mass shootings and the cyclical narratives of trauma and recovery. But actually understanding and treating each person’s unique suffering requires more than a town hall and takes much longer than a news cycle.