As a junior in high school I was looking forward to going to prom in a week and celebrating my 17th birthday a few days after that. But in one fateful morning all of that became inconsequential and my life was forever changed.
It was a beautiful spring day and we begged the teachers to let us have class outside, to no avail. I went to a Catholic high school but the vast majority of my friends in my neighborhood and youth group went to the local public high school. As I sat in class, wishing I was outside, my friend who was a volunteer firefighter had his emergency pager start to buzz incessantly with incoming pages.
“Possible multiple gunmen.
Possible explosions on roof.
Possible shots fired…
at Columbine High School.”
The day was April 20, 1999…the shooting at Columbine High School. I couldn’t have fathomed that five of my friends would never come home from school that day.
The minutes, hours, days, and weeks to follow went by as a blur,
yet also crawled by so slowly it seemed they would never end.
Hearing that some of my friends had been found and were okay, and hoping in my mind that it was true, but my heart refusing to believe it until I physically saw them, touched them, hugged them. Sitting with friends as we learned (2 and 3 days after the shooting) who had actually been killed; then comforting close friends as they crumpled into a heap of sobs, knowing that there was nothing I could do to ease their pain or my own, but all I could do was be with them.
Memorials, vigils, funerals…so many funerals, police, interviews, fighting through walls of media just to get to Church, and creating human barriers around other students to prevent the media from shoving cameras in their faces simply because they started to cry. Walking around in a daze wearing shorts and t-shirts in the midst of a spring blizzard that had descended upon us.
I hardly slept and when I did my dreams were filled with nightmares. I found myself yearning for those first 5-10 seconds each morning when I’d wake up and still be groggy enough to believe that everything was just a horrendous nightmare…until I would quickly realize that the nightmare was my new reality. My heart had been torn to pieces.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were
numerous things that I was learning
– that God was teaching me –
along the way.
1) Ministry of Presence is stronger than any words that can be said.
The day of the shooting I don’t remember any consoling things that people said, but when I walked into Church I remember where every Core Team member (youth ministry adult volunteer) was standing in the hall. They were there when we needed them the most and already had built relationships with us.
2) Sometimes silence says it all.
I can’t recall how much time I spent with my peers or the adults. But often times it was in silence because there was nothing that could be said.
3) No one can take away the pain, but it helped if they sat with me in it.
There was nothing that could be done to take away the pain or truly answer the questions we had, but someone who walked alongside me in the midst of my pain helped me to know that I wasn’t alone.
4) Sometimes theology doesn’t matter.
I didn’t want to hear that my friends were in heaven (though I hoped they were), that God has a plan, or the Church’s teaching on death, suffering, and purgatory. I wanted my friends here with me and with their families.
5) Sometimes theology really matters.
After the initial shock of grief and trauma I needed true and genuine answers to where my friends souls were. I didn’t need the ‘fluffy, feel good’ answers that I could read right through. I needed the truth. Were they in heaven? Purgatory? What about the shooters?
6) Basic survival needs are no longer a priority.
Two days after the shooting I had a Core Team member ask if I’d eaten anything. There were tables of platters and donated food just a few feet away. In a daze I responded that I wasn’t hungry. She got in my face and said that she didn’t ask if I was hungry but asked if I’d eaten. It was her assertiveness that made me realize that I hadn’t eaten since before the shooting. When I said I hadn’t eaten, she smiled and warmly said, “Then let’s get you something to eat.”
7) When someone says, “I could never imagine what you went through” it was not comforting but only made me feel isolated and alone.
I’ve had many people say this to me over the years and not once has it be helpful or beneficial. Maybe they’re saying it more for themselves than for me. Maybe they’re trying to give me an awkward affirmation (“congrats, you survived that”). Not once has that comment been helpful or beneficial.
8) People saying, “You’ll begin the healing process and eventually time heals all wounds,” didn’t help.
I would get so frustrated as people spoke about this ‘healing process’. Just give me a checklist of this process so I can go through it and be done already! That checklist always seemed to elude me. As time passed I slowly learned that it doesn’t take away the pain or heal the wounds, but only changes it. It took me years to experience that God alone heals all wounds, but sometimes the scars will remain…and that’s not a bad thing.
Why does this all matter now?
April 20, 2017 is the 18th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Wow, it’s hard to believe that I’ve lived more with the shooting as part of my story than I have without it. But the real reason this matters now is because God is still using that tragedy to bring about good.
Just over a month ago my community had tragedy strike again. Throughout this year we’d had an unusually young participant in my middle school youth group. Baby Anthony would come each week and was such a joyful, loving, and good baby. He never fussed unless he was hungry or needed changing and was a beloved staple in my ministry. His oldest brother was also in youth group and his parents, and dear friends of mine, were on Core Team. Over spring break I got the call that 8 month old Anthony had suddenly passed away. I was in disbelief.
I had the privileged opportunity to journey with his family in the days and weeks to follow. And as I sat with them, prayed with them, and cried with them; I knew I was in my comfort zone. Because of what I experienced after the shooting and numerous other deaths in the months and years to follow, I knew what to expect. I knew my ministry of presence was most important; that I needed to focus on getting Anthony’s family to eat and drink something; that in the first days the grief stricken aren’t concerned about theology…until they are; that the best thing I could do was be with them and help navigate the logistics and needs of the family and others wanting to help and love on them.
- Never would I have thought that I’d be journeying with dear friends as they buried their child.
- Never would I have known that I’d be using my fundraiser experience to help friends raise money for their child’s casket, funeral, and burial expenses.
- Never did I think I would be going through baby pictures and family videos to compile a memorial slideshow.
- Never would I have fathomed that I’d be writing a beloved baby’s obituary.
- Never did I think I’d be telling my youth group about losing one of our own.
- Never would I have thought that I would feel prepared in the midst of this tragedy.
- Never did I imagine that God would have brought such direct goodness out of the tragedy of the Columbine shooting.
- Never could I have fathomed that I would be able to witness Anthony’s parents experience healing, joy, and hope right in front of me.
God’s glory will never be out done. There is always a light shining in the darkness, even if you can’t see it right now.
Let us pray for Anthony’s family, all those impacted by the Columbine shooting, and all who are struggling and suffering. Lord, hear the cries of your people for You are a faithful God who is always with us, especially amidst the darkness.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is much appreciated.
My prayers are with you and your ministry.