Newtown Shooting

12.18.12

Newtown Shooting: Life After Losing a Loved One to Gun Violence

As families struggle to cope with the Newtown tragedy, surviving parents and children of people killed at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and in similar shootings talk to The Daily Beast about the horrible events—and how they changed everything.

A sad community—survivors and family members of victims of mass shootings—grew this week. The Newtown shooting, in which Adam Lanza killed 20 schoolchildren and eight adults, including himself—brought members of that group back to where they were on the day when an act of man (and it was all men who pulled the trigger) changed their lives forever.

“On Friday I got text messages from people asking, ‘Are you okay? I’m thinking about you.’ Most people would ask why, I just turned on the news,” said Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave Sanders, died in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. “We don’t have a choice when our trauma is brought up.”

Three members of this group—William O’Neil, whose son, Daniel, was killed in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University; Christian Heyne, whose mother was killed and father was injured by a California gunman on Memorial Day 2005; and Coni Sanders, daughter of Dave Sanders, the only teacher to die during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting—spoke with The Daily Beast about how the shootings altered their lives:

William O’Neil’s son, Daniel, was one of 32 people killed by Seung-Hui Cho when the 23-year-old student attacked the Virginia Tech University campus on April 16, 2007. Daniel was 22 and working on his master’s degree in environmental engineering when he died.

We lived in Lincoln, Rhode Island for a long time, our children were raised there. The Virginia Tech massacre certainly had some effect on our decision to move to a town called Westerly, but before the massacre I changed jobs and started working in New London, Connecticut. So moving was as much about convenience as anything else.

I am much more cynical, in general, than I was before. I am not hopeful. I have the feeling that we are willing to sacrifice people every so often in this country so that we can protect our gun laws. Basically, my view of the government is not very positive. Government isn’t the enemy. But I’m cynical about whether the government is going to get anything done and if what they’re getting done is for the benefit of the populace. With this latest horrible tragedy in Newtown maybe we can get some meaningful gun laws. 

I’m not opposed to all guns. I understand hunting, I understand that people hunt for good reasons and I even understand people who have guns in their homes for good reasons—though I would never have one. But there is no reason for assault weapons. The only purpose for assault weapons is to kill other people.

If you asked me before the massacre I probably would have been in favor of gun control, but I never really spent all that much time thinking about it. It wasn’t something that had a primary influence on my political opinions. If I was thinking about who to vote for, that wasn’t one of the questions I would ask. Now it is.

When other shootings occur, it’s very painful. It really brings back—especially the Newton thing—the whole Virginia Tech experience. I think that we kind of tend to go into a funk when it happens. It just brings back so many memories.

It’s hard to put a finger on what’s changed because it’s become my life. It’s almost difficult to remember what it was like prior to this event. We obviously will never get over it; none of the parents will ever get over it. Anything can trigger a memory of things we used to do with our son that we’ll never do again. But life has to go on and we continue doing things like we did before.

On Memorial Day, 2005, Christian Heyne’s parents, Janice and Timothy, were returning a boat they’d borrowed to their friend Steve Mazin’s house when Toby Welchel—a man against whom Mazin had a restraining order—approached them with a gun. He shot both of Heyne’s parents and their friend before going on to pistol-whip two children and their mother, shooting at a police officer, and then killing himself inside a local Walmart. Christian’s father survived the attack; his mother did not.

I was 18 or 19 at the time, going to community college and helping a buddy run a plumbing business, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My father took up the cause of petitioning city councils for local gun laws and I would go with him. That’s how I ended up working for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, where I’ve been for almost three years now.

I was raised in a household where we weren’t allowed to play with toy guns. I couldn’t even point my fingers and pretend to have a gun—my parents were against the mentality of being violent towards others.  Shootings like this happen too often. A lot of stories about gun violence are background noise for most people. It’s different for victims of gun violence. When you’re a victim you realize it’s not just one person who’s affected by that act of violence. It’s an entire network, a community of individuals—mothers, brothers, acquaintances—whose lives are going to be changed forever in the way ours have. 

‘I have the feeling that we are willing to sacrifice people every so often in this country so that we can protect our gun laws.’

My life has changed in all the ways you’d think it would. I think about where I was seven years ago when this happened, I think about where I am now and all of the things my mom has missed out on in between. I found my wife and got married in that time span. My brother also got married, to the woman that my mom at least got to know, and now he has a daughter who will grow up not knowing her grandmother. My sister graduated college; she was in high school at the time. My wife, my children will never get the opportunity to know one of the greatest people I’ve ever known in my life.

We were always a really close family. It’s hard to tell what things would be like otherwise, because this happened when we were pretty young. It’s hard to imagine that an event like this doesn’t make you closer, make you hug everyone closer. You realize the fragility of life. You realize that you have to let people know how you feel about them every day because you might not have a chance to down the road. You live the rest of your life knowing how positive an influence people can have on your life.

There is no right way to deal with an event like this—it’s just how I’ve handled it. You never get over it. The pain and the scar that I have is just as fresh as the day it happened, except now it’s just a part of me and I’ve had more time to deal with it.

Newtown was horrific, and there are so many victims in this [gun control] movement, we spent a lot of time talking solemnly to one another, shed a lot of tears. It’s been emotionally draining. This is about the worst I’ve ever felt from anything happening. It’s hard enough to think that I had to lose my mother, but when you think about mothers and fathers losing their children who were so young and so innocent and the scale to which it happened. But all of these events are horrific. Aurora was a hard day; the Sikh temple shooting was a hard day, Oregon. Every time this happens my heart rate goes back to the same heart rate I had when I was waiting in the emergency room to see if my dad was going to make it. You get put right back into those shoes and know the long road ahead of these families and the fact that it’s going to be with them for the rest of their lives. The kids who survived in Newton, their lives are going to be altered forever as well. It’s tough.

Coni Sanders’s father, Dave Sanders, was the only Columbine High School teacher killed in the 1999 massacre. Before he was shot, Sanders helped clear out the school’s cafeteria, saving the lives of about 100 students. 

I wish I could say it gets easier but, to be honest, every time another shooting happens I vomit. That’s one of my first reactions; I throw up. It sends me right back to the day my dad was killed. I start remembering the chaos, wondering whether or not he was shot, the news media, the helicopters. You get sucked back into the past. I started thinking about the families losing their children right before the holidays and that made me think about what the holidays looked like for my family that first year. It felt like we shouldn’t be happy, we turned into robots: exchanged gifts and went home. It really impacted my kids. I was so self-involved with my own trauma that I didn’t spend that much time talking to my daughters about it.

I was 24 years old at the time of the Columbine shooting, living in Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up, and doing general office work. I dropped out of college when I got pregnant with my second child but after my dad died, I thought I should go back to school—he always wanted me to. I majored in business, but took so many abnormal-psychology classes because I wanted to understand how two kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold could think it was reasonable to kill people, that I ended up with a psychology-of-violence certificate. For the past 10 years I’ve worked at the state mental hospital and at a private practice for the past five. I work with criminals to teach them nonviolent solutions to their problems.

On Friday I got text messages from people asking, “Are you okay? I’m thinking about you.” Most people would ask why, I just turned on the news. We don’t have a choice when our trauma is brought up.

Losing my dad in Columbine has changed how I parent my kids. They also have this vicarious trauma. For example, when my oldest was still little, every time they did a school lockdown or even if she just heard someone talking about Columbine or guns, she would hide and wet her pants. She was 7 at the time of the shooting, but we didn’t realize she needed mental help with it until she was 16. You think kids are too young to understand, but they do. There is a huge sense of fear that if it can happen to that kid, it can happen to me.

Recently, the school psychologist approached me about how I thought my youngest—who is now a freshman in high school—would handle an emergency drill. I made the decision to have the psychologist take her to Starbucks during the drill. I still think school shootings are very rare, and I figured I’d rather avoid traumatizing her with a drill and hope that there won’t be a school shooting. But then again, if there is a school shooting she won’t know what to do.

Today, my younger daughter wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school, but I told her she had to. It was hard, because of this recent shooting, she’s scared and I’m scared. We all have that reaction when something like this happens but I think one of the healthiest things to do is minimize the break in routine because it makes everything feel more chaotic. I didn’t want her sitting at home thinking about what happened.

I have to force myself to send my kids to school even though I’m afraid. Sometimes the thought enters your mind: It’s possible that somebody would come into an elementary school and kill your children.

My family has forever lost that sense of “it can’t happen to us.” I remember that day thinking, “This can’t happen to us, we are normal.” We always say, April 19 we all went to bed normal, just a regular family. April 20, we took on this notoriety that we didn’t want. Our lives changed significantly. We lost Dad. The way all of the Aurora victims’ families were given a spokesperson was so key. After Columbine, we were grieving in a fishbowl. TV cameras captured our every move.

My mother still lives in the same house in Littleton, and my two sisters still live here as well. My mom was a teacher’s aide at an elementary school but hasn’t been able to work since Columbine happened. Her sadness is still so overwhelming. Friday she kept repeating, “20 babies, 20 babies.” It just reminds us all of what it was like to lose somebody in such a horrific way. It’s hard to crawl out of that.

My mom’s house almost turned into a shrine after Columbine, because so many people wanted to give us things. It took us about 10 years to allow ourselves to throw those things away, but it was a constant reminder of the pain and grief of his death.

When I think about myself, I am a therapist, a mother, and way down on the list, I am a victim. That is not my number-one identity. For my mom, it kind of is. She has this immense sense of guilt because everybody that knows her, all they talk about is my dad. She talks about him. She felt a lot of pressure to wait a certain amount of time before dating anyone but, in the end, can you imagine being in a relationship where you have to live up to that kind of hero person? Because she doesn’t work, she doesn’t have anything else to talk about. For her, it is her identity because she hasn’t replaced it with anything else.

For a long time, a difference of opinions on things—politics, gun control, whether violent videogames, music, or medication were to blame for the shooting—were the stressors between my family members. Overall, we got closer because we had to. We had to take care of each other and support Mom because Dad wasn’t there to do it. We were close before, but I wouldn’t say we saw each other every day. Now we talk every day. It’s on and off.

I laughed about something on Friday and a friend was surprised that I could find anything funny on the day that another shooting had happened. There is this expectation that we have to be horrifically sad and traumatized when these things happen, but part of getting through that is finding a sense of normal and maintaining a sense of humor.

Society tells us how we have to behave. People think my family should be on the no-guns bandwagon because my dad was shot, but we’re not. Shouldn’t we get to choose? I don’t have a problem with people having guns, but I have a problem with people not using them responsibly. I have a problem with people having 100-round magazines. The only reason to have a gun like that is to do major damage.

We can’t choose our trauma, but you can choose what you do with it, how, over the long term, it will factor into your world. For some people, it has become a political mission about guns. For others, it’s been about building memorials. For me, it was going into the mental-health field to teach people how to cope with trauma and stop violence. In time, it can do a lot of good.