Sharing the Burden

Columbine Survivor Liz Carlston on the Shooting’s Lessons for Aurora

From finding gratitude to talking and more talking, survivor Liz Carlston counsels Aurora on how to heal.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

I am so sorry.

I am sorry for the lives that were lost. I am sorry for those who have been physically and emotionally wounded. I am sorry for the heavy sense of grief and shock felt in the Aurora community.

As a Columbine survivor and graduate, knowing firsthand what it is to encounter unprecedented violence ending in a shattered sense of reality at the graveside of friends and neighbors, I am sorry.

Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, I’ve been blessed to move forward and ultimately choose a joy-filled life. At work on Friday, I learned about the Aurora movie-theater shooting, and my heart broke for the families and victims.

Because I had been there before, I knew that people needed to hear that it would be OK. Thirteen years ago, I didn’t have that confidence, but I want those in Aurora to know that it will be OK. An incredibly difficult journey lies ahead, one that you didn’t choose, but don’t you give up.

I was in my math class at Columbine on April 20, 1999. I was a junior, and my varsity basketball team had just completed our first winning season in 12 years. That morning, I escaped from the school with my classmates at the prompting of a strobe-lighted fire alarm after shots rang out. At the end of the day, 25 people lay wounded and 15 others were dead, including my basketball coach Dave Sanders.

In the initial days, I functioned half-humanly. Sleep was hard because the nightmare of the shooting would play out in my dreams. At the conclusion of a memorial service, I inexplicably burst into uncontrolled tears, and I couldn’t stop heaving. The shock creates a weird scenario where life stands still for you but moves right along for everyone else. This is normal. The fact is, there is no normal when something like this happens—and that’s OK.

Talk and give others the opportunity to listen.

Early on, my church hosted therapist-led focus groups where we gathered in classrooms to talk, sitting in a circle of eight to 10 students. I hated it, but talking, listening, and understanding what others saw was essential to healing. I told my story so often I was sick of hearing my own voice! At home, I eagerly waited for Aunt Karen’s daily phone call. She would ask how I was and let me talk, and talk, and talk. I felt like my experience mattered in some way, and the burden wasn’t mine alone. Tell your story. You’ll heal with each retelling.

Find gratitude.

Basketball was my life before the shooting, but after Coach Sanders was killed, I found it hard to play. Every time I picked up a ball, I’d think of Columbine. It felt so unfair to have another thing I loved taken away. However, time passed, and I started playing again. I began associating basketball with Coach Sanders, a hero who gave his life to save so many. What a great tribute that is. Having gratitude has given back a passion I truly love. Through tribulation we are made stronger.

Never, never give up.

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I recently visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The experience was sobering, and I was touched by a video featuring a few survivors. One face was familiar; she had visited Columbine in 1999. After years of living in a concentration camp, losing her family, and emerging as one of the sole survivors of a death march through Germany, Gerda Weissman Klein’s words are so significant: “Never, never give up.”

“I’d been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day,” she said. “Since the blessed day of my liberation, I have asked the question ‘Why am I here? I am no better.’ In my mind’s eye, I see those years and faces of those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you can do it in no better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.”

Her visit to Littleton had such a profound impact on me. At times I would sulk in grieving the loss of friends, an innocent view of the world, and the profound impact the shooting had on my family. In that period I thought life would never be the same and that I would be emotionally damaged permanently. Then came Mrs. Klein, a living, breathing example of one who endured extraordinary hardship and endured it so well. We exchanged letters, and she always responded with more encouraging words. This is an individual whose example I followed and whose light helped lead me from a dark place.

Reach out and love.

On Monday a family stopped by the Aurora memorial with flowers. Asked why they came, despite having no direct connection to those involved, they said they felt compelled to pay their respects.

“If the shooter thought he would break us with fear and sorrow, he was mistaken,” they said. “He only made us stronger in our awareness, commitment, and love for others in our community.”

This is the greatness in tragedy—people responding with love, open hearts, and helping hands. There is so much good to do in this world, so many kind words to say, and a willingness to help another person on their way. Take it one day at a time, don’t give up, and remember, it will be OK.