The Reader Center is a newsroom initiative that is helping The Times build deeper ties with our audience.
In the painful aftermath of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., that left 26 people dead on Sunday, we asked readers affected by similar attacks to share their experiences and tell us how they have coped, in the hopes that any advice they offer might help others facing such a tragedy. We heard from more than 150 people in less than a day.
Their responses suggest that such mass killings touch myriad lives — bystanders, first responders, close-knit communities, the families and friends of those lost, among others — and that the effects are powerful, lingering and often hard to talk about.
David Silberman of Brooklyn, N.Y., survived a deadly 1985 grenade attack at the Vienna airport when he was 16 years old and found it cathartic simply to put his experience into words: “Thank you for giving me a place to tell my story,” he wrote. “I don’t get to tell it often. I don’t know how I got through it. It is haunting, and no one ever wanted to talk about it with me. It was scary, foreign and not part of anyone else’s reality.”
Over all, those affected did not sugarcoat the suffering; some are coping better than others. But all have found a way to go on, and many expressed hope that they could provide a road map for survivors like those in Sutherland Springs, now taking the first steps on a very tough path.
(Some replies have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
“Tell your story to everyone — that is how you heal.”
Mandi Burkett, Austin, Tex.
Affected by the shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Tex., in 1999
When I was 16 in Ft. Worth, Tex., I lived through a mass shooting at my church. The gunman killed seven and wounded seven before turning the gun on himself. I was in complete disbelief. Church was probably the most safe place outside of your home. I would say it was “hard,” “unimaginable,” “devastating,” but none of those words really describes it.
My boyfriend then, now husband, was with me at the time, as were many of our friends. It goes without saying, we were immediately changed forever. I know we all came away with something different, but from the last 18 years, here is what I know:
1. You will never get over it. You will change, and things will get different, but you will think about this (and sometimes relive it) every day of your life.
2. I have a strong faith, as do many others I was with that night, but faith alone cannot get you through this. Find a counselor, and go. If someone offers you counseling services, say yes as fast as you can. You will need to work through so many things.
3. Don’t stay hidden inside. This world is scary, but man, it is also really good. Some days just getting up and moving will be hard, but you will get up and you will keep going. Live your life. It is indeed so precious.
4. Don’t be scared to tell others what they mean to you. That is one of the biggest things I have learned. Just say it. Text it or write it down. You never know how many more opportunities you will have. Even if you cry the whole time and you stumble on the words, tell them. People need to hear those positive words more than you know, so say them. Speak life into others.
5. Keep talking about it. Tell your story to everyone — that is how you heal and that is the only way things will change. When you have had time to heal and you can talk about it, then talk about it. We need to put faces and names to this epidemic. We need to be brave and share our stories.
“Let yourself go through all the emotions.”
Andie Caputo, Smyrna, Del.
Affected by the shooting in Las Vegas in 2017
I was at the concert in Vegas on the night of the mass shooting. I just remember trying to get out and running as far as I possibly could. I can’t explain the fear we all had that night, and I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever forget. I think the healing process is just starting for my family. They have been my biggest support and are all there for me on my roughest days. My mom has literally been there for every call, text, anything I need to listen and talk me through it. I am going to therapy to figure out how to process this.
I would say just try to remember to take everything one day at a time and to let yourself go through all the emotions you’re feeling whenever they come up. I’ve been trying so hard to just put on a brave face, but when it all builds up and you are feeling angry or upset, let yourself feel that way and then pick yourself up and remember how lucky you are to be here.
Love trumps hate. We need to come together and remember there’s more good than evil in this world.
“Don’t try to understand why — there is no why.”
Jon Ferguson, Vancouver, Wash.
Affected by the shooting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2006
I lost two close friends at what was terribly dubbed the Seattle Massacre, in 2006. It was awful, from the moment I learned about it to this day. I had been at the location of the shooting just a few hours before it happened. I left partly because I had to work the next day. The grief was intense and immediate and lasted for years. I still feel very shaken by it, and my heart aches at the news of each new shooting. I was and am still very fortunate to have many close friends who are in the same boat as me. We support each other. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
My advice to anyone going through this is to grieve. Don’t be afraid of your grief. Don’t try to understand why — there is no why. It doesn’t make sense and it never will.
“All that anger I felt wasn’t hurting anyone but me.”
Brad Geiger, Logan, Ohio
Affected by the shooting in Aurora, Colo., in 2012
A good friend of mine was a victim of the “Batman” shooting in Colorado, back in 2012. We would go to lunch a few times a week at work. After the shooting, I was so angry at the shooter. Honestly, if given the opportunity, I probably would have flown to Colorado and put a bullet in the back of the shooter’s head.
When the time came for the shooter’s trial, I kept up with it as much as I could. I remember as the trial drew to its end, I couldn’t wait for the verdict. As the verdict was read, at first I was like, “How is he not getting the death penalty?” Then as the decision for each victim was read, I discovered something. What I had wanted was vengeance; what the shooter was getting was justice. It took a while, but I let go of my anger and thirst for revenge. I realized that all that anger I felt wasn’t hurting anyone but me.
Now I do things to honor my friend’s memory. For example, I bought breakfast for a father and his son at a local restaurant. He asked why, and I told him about Matt. When “Batman v Superman” came out, I went to our local theater to watch it. I made arrangements through the owner’s wife to purchase 10 tickets for strangers in Matt’s name. In each instance, I try to let others know a little bit about him.
“Coping is knowing when to push aside the heartache so it’s more like background noise.”
Mary Kay Mace, Petersburg, Ill.
Affected by the shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008
My only child, my daughter Ryanne (pronounced like the boy’s name Ryan), was the youngest of the five students murdered in the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University on Feb. 14, 2008. It’s been exceedingly difficult to “cope.” I’ve had to adjust how I even define that word. Coping means that I know I will always be sad and feel longing, loneliness and incomplete. Coping is knowing when to push aside the heartache so it’s more like background noise when I have to focus on something else. I take every opportunity I can to honor Ryanne’s memory by urging legislators to enact smarter, more enforceable gun safety laws.
It’s devastating each time I hear about another shooting. I’ve been at this for nearly 10 years, and I can say only one thing with 100 percent certainty: It won’t be my child who gets killed in the next mass shooting. I take no pleasure in stating that fact because I don’t want anybody else to go through this.
“Always look for the helpers.”
Dora Totoian, Roseburg, Ore.
Affected by the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015
After the mass shooting in my hometown, Roseburg, Ore., someone very dear to me told me to think of a Mr. Rogers quote: “Always look for the helpers. There are always people who are helping.” Looking for those people helped in the grieving process because it proved to me that even though there’s so much evil and sadness in the world, whenever one of these acts of evil occurs, there are always people working to relieve the pain, even if it’s hard to see them and focus on them. Knowing that there are people like that is a great comfort.
I was a high school senior at the time, and I lost my friend Lucero that day. We weren’t super good friends, just friends from class, but her passing has affected me a lot. It’s the worst kind of pain because it’s so unexpected. You should know that you’ll never heal completely and that you’ll have a new definition of “normal.” However, you should also know that in these moments you get to see the best of humanity and of your community.
“There’s generally a hero in these tragedies and I try to reflect on them.”
Jonas Nahoum, Santa Fe, N.M.
Affected by the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012
I’m from Newtown, Connecticut, and I have friends from high school that lost their daughter. Newtown is a small town so of course I know of others. My parents still live in Newtown. They were extremely emotional and quick to cry in the months after the shooting. We talked about it a lot. Seeing them suffer like that gave me a realization of how far-reaching the effects are. Going home (I live in New Mexico now) was incredibly difficult — although people were kinder to each other, there was and still is a dark cloud over Newtown. I find reminders everywhere when I visit.
I’ve coped with this tragedy by holding my kids tighter when December 14 comes around, and I always read them the book by Steven Kellogg and Patricia Maclachlan, dedicated to the Newtown community: “Snowflakes Fall.” The kids don’t know its references, but it’s a reminder to me never to normalize what happened and always to remember.
I also went to high school with a relative of Vicki Soto, the brave teacher that sacrificed herself to save her classroom of children. I remember her as a positive light during such a dark event, and I’m continually inspired by her. There’s generally a hero in these tragedies, and I try to reflect on them rather than on the disturbed individual that committed the act.
“We have found blessings in new friends who also are coping with this loss.”
Jolanda Arnold, Lorton, Va.
Affected by the shooting in the Washington Navy Yard in 2013
Learning to cope with the aftermath of losing someone in a mass shooting is a never-ending process. My husband, Michael Arnold, was one of the 12 people killed at the Washington Navy Yard. Never in a million years did I expect to become a member of a club that no one should have to be a part of. We had been married over 36 years. He was my husband, my best friend, my love, my partner and the father of our two sons. After four years without him, I know that I will never get over losing him — the best thing I can hope for is to continue to learn to live without him, better.
Yes, we are all coping, but it is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. It is the hardest thing Michael’s sons have ever done. We do draw strength from the amazing family and friends who stand by us every day. We have found blessings in new friends who also are coping with this loss. We all “get it” — and unless you have been personally affected by a mass shooting, you do not understand the terror and heartache that becomes a part of you.