This article was origionally published on Sun Sentinel
he questions are endless, and relentless.
How am I going to survive this? Will my family, my husband, my wife, my mother, my father, my sister, my brother ever be OK again? Should I get out of bed? Should we sell the house and move? What will happen when school reopens? Should it reopen? Will the reporters ever stop calling? Should I talk to them? What should I say? What can I say? Who can I trust? Where will we be in a day, a week, a month, a year? Will the tears ever stop? How many more funerals can I take?
Joe Samaha and Nicole Hockley know these questions all too well. They know that these questions are likely roaring through the heads of survivors and families of people killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. They also know that answers can be elusive and, in many cases, nonexistent. Samaha’s 18-year-old daughter, Reema, was one of 32 people killed by a gunman on April 16, 2007 on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. She was a freshman at the university. Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, was one of 26 people shot to death on Dec. 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children, all 7 years old or younger, and six members of the school’s faculty died in the attack.
Today, Samaha is the president of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va., and created by families of victims and survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech. The foundation’s mission is, as stated on its website, “to prevent Virginia Tech-type shootings through education and advocacy; to employ comprehensive educational efforts to expand community and student awareness of campus safety issues; and to offer compassion, support, and hope to those affected by violence.”
This week, Samaha told the Sun Sentinel, “My focus is on the families of the victims and the survivors and first responders who have to deal with this [shooting in Parkland]. … I told our executive director that this is our total focus for two to three days.”
Hockley co-founded and works as managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Newtown that works toward preventing gun violence through education in, as Hockley says, “those days, weeks, months, years before someone decides to pick up a firearm and hurt someone else or themselves.”
On Friday morning, while stopping for breakfast in Coral Springs between national-media interviews and meetings with Broward County officials, Hockley discussed what all of us can do to help the Stoneman Douglas shooting’s survivors and families navigate the difficult times ahead.
“Everybody’s path is going to be very different and unique, and they need to be respected in that path and the choices that they make,” Hockley says. “Grief can express itself in so many ways and cycle through multiple points during the day: shock, denial, anger, blame, sadness. And really, in my opinion, the best way is to follow their lead and listen more than talk. And just be there.”
Here are excerpts from our conversations with Samaha and Hockley.
JOE SAMAHA, PRESIDENT OF VTV FAMILY OUTREACH FOUNDATION
I will tell you there is a path. There are multiple paths. It just depends on which one these families will take. Some will go home and turn out the light and do nothing. But their immediate focus right now is, “What [clothes] are we going to put on our children to bury them?”
There is today, tomorrow and 20 years from now. That’s some of the stuff that we thought about, that some of our families had the ability to think about: “What is going to happen to my brain 20 years from now?” Let me tell you: It’s never the same, neither the heart nor the brain.
The long-term care is what’s really needed. That’s the message I want to put out there. It’s not only about the immediate needs. It’s about the long-term care that these families are going to need and these survivors are going to need.
Everybody has their own time, and I put “time” in caps. Some will want to be left alone. Some will want to talk. Some will say, “My focus is on my child or my mom or my dad, spouse.” They need time.
Here’s one thing that really helps, which was our idea as victims in that room at Virginia Tech where we were asked to be every day for updates and reports and so forth. The biggest one was “We need positive ID.” “OK, that’s a silly question. You’ve got keys to the dorm rooms. Why don’t you just go and get that? Why are you even asking me? Why are you bothering me?” It was so chaotic that people were duplicating work and activities.
If I can suggest one thing: Every family member needs to be appointed a liaison person. That means one person needs to be a victim’s assistant or advocate, and that’s who they advocate for, and everything gets funneled through that person. The family needs to learn to trust those persons. That is the most important. You have 17 families [in Parkland]. You need 17 people to be their advocate.
All the police, EMT, all the coroner stuff — all should be channeled to the liaison person. That would establish some organization. It brings some organization to the chaos. Otherwise, the families don’t know where to go. They don’t know what to do. They are going to be focused unfortunately on burying their loved one. There’s a lot of stuff happening, and people want to pull on you, and police want more information and want to interview you, and that’s stuff they may not be able to handle right now. If they need immediate answers, they may have to wait a week or two.
NICOLE HOCKLEY, FOUNDER AND MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SANDY HOOK PROMISE
In my experience, I’m guessing [the families] have no idea what they really need right now. And sometimes, the ones who need the most are the ones who don’t ask for it. So try to anticipate their needs. Anything that can clear the way for services, and not all services will work for everyone. A therapy dog may be great for one family and completely wrong for another family. So offering multiple modes and ideas can help. I’m focusing in on the families of loss in that, but there are so many other families that are going to be traumatized. The ripple effects of grief and trauma — you can’t underestimate that in a community. And some people will feel, “Well, I shouldn’t ask for help because I didn’t lose someone.” And I just think, you know what, everyone lost something in your community. Accept that everyone’s going to be traumatized in some way, and be there for each other.
Also accept the differences that come about. In my experience, again, after a tragedy, people come together very quickly because of a shared outrage, shared loss, and they want to do something. And just as quickly, people will decide there are different things they want to do, and that can cause fractures. All I can say there is just allow that to happen and respect every person’s individual choice and voice. Because no one’s right, and no one’s wrong. This is where you follow the lead from the people and just be there for them and protect them. Definitely protect them. Because they have a long journey ahead, and it doesn’t get easier.
I’m just here to be of service. If there is anything that I can do to help, I want to do it. I know every experience is unique, like I said, but I have some semblance of understanding what they’re going through. There is no playbook for this in terms of: How do you handle that number of funerals? How do you handle going back to the school? How do you handle the media? How do you handle some of the ugly parts that come out? How do you handle donations? There’s no book to follow, and I think connections to other people who’ve experienced this from other tragedies, or from Sandy Hook, can be useful as guideposts for people here in terms of, “Well, this is what happened that we weren’t expecting, and this is how we handled it. Perhaps this is something that you want to try.” Communication to the families, for example. How do they receive information? How often do they receive information? Who’s giving them information? Who is the trusted point of contact?
I think I first met other survivor families, victim families, one month after the shooting [in Newtown]. And I don’t even know if that was too early. Because it was useful, on the one hand, to be able to share that space with someone who’d experienced this before me. I could look at them and say, “OK, there is a path. I’m going to survive this. I’m going to get through this.” But even at that point, looking at them and saying, “That is not what I want. This isn’t the path that I’ve chosen,” can be shocking in its own way.
There were some who said, “You know, this is what’s likely to happen next.” And there were useful parts. Then, there were others where I thought, “I don’t want to know about some of the potential issues that are going to come up. Or, I do, but not at this time. I just want to know that I’m going to make it. That my family’s going to be OK. That my surviving son’s going to be OK. And not think about all the problems along the way.” I think there’s a time and a place. We’re what — two days after [the Parkland shooting]? Far too soon. I would think that the families just need space, privacy and the love of the people who are their support network around them.
Be kind to each other. You do have a long journey ahead.