More than 900 school shootings have taken place in the United States in the 10 years since the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left six adults and 20 children dead, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, an independent, nonpartisan research project.
As the number of school shootings has grown, survivors have turned to each other for comfort, support and to work together for change.
When another school shooting happens, survivors say they reach out to each other and to the new students affected through letters, text messages, social media and email.
"Good Morning America" asked more than one dozen survivors of school shootings across the country and across generations to write letters to the next school shooting survivor, to tell them what to expect in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, and what they wish they had known when it happened to them.
Here are their letters, presented in their own words.
Jackie Hegarty, survivor of 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut
Dear future school shooting survivor,
My name is Jackie Hegarty and I am a survivor of the Sandy Hook shooting from 2012.
I was only 7 years old at the time, and it felt like I was forced to grow up that day. And now, I write to future gun violence survivors as a 17 year old.
Over the past 10 years, I have struggled with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I'm afraid of loud noises, and I startle when I hear a door slam, or a hydro flask fall. I never enter a new place without knowing where an exit is. In public spaces, I seat myself where I can always see the door in case a threat comes in. I always make sure my classes have a hiding spot in close proximity. This is my life as a gun violence survivor.
I still struggle as a teenager to understand why I survived. Nobody expects something this tragic to happen to them, and when it does it makes you feel guilty.
Especially as a child, I would watch these truly horrific events affect people, and I never thought that it would happen to me, until it did. So often I found myself asking, how could something like this happen to innocent people? To my bus buddy, my friend? It's impossible to even fathom. Suddenly I was dealing with complex emotions, trying to wrap my head around what happened. It took me years to gain some understanding of that day, and even in 2022, I'm still processing.
The reason I'm writing this is because I believe that the aftermath of a tragedy is not just the few days that gain the public's attention. It's the years of mourning, grieving, and processing.
Returning to school after the tragedy was difficult for everyone. It was a new school we had to adjust to. Having my classmates and teachers around definitely helped give me a sense of normalcy. To this day I feel safer around people that went to SHS with me. But it didn't resolve everything, and many of us continued to struggle at our new unfamiliar school.
I, myself, was afraid to show my emotions. I felt like keeping my composure was the only thing that was going to get me through the long days. So I bottled things up. I tried not to think about it, I pushed it away to try to live my life as a "normal kid."
But I'm here to tell you NOT to do that. Those years of emotions and hidden feelings have to come out eventually, and when they do it's exhausting and overwhelming. You're allowed to have emotions. It's human, and going through something traumatic almost requires you to have emotions.
Trauma can't disappear, but it can be managed. You're entitled to scream, cry, break down, mourn and grieve, it's a part of healing. No one deserves to live their life feeling like they have to stay silent. If you're struggling, reach out to people. Your family, your friends, anyone who you trust is there to support you every step of the way.
I think the biggest thing I want to stress is that everyone's trauma is different. Don't invalidate your trauma just because "other people" have it worse, or that other people deserve to have a stronger response. Trauma is not a scale, we can't just rank tragic experiences. Two people who had been present at the same event of gun violence can have drastically different experiences.
Be kind to yourself and listen to what you need.
You deserved to survive and you are not your trauma. I am a Sandy Hook survivor, but that is not my sole identity. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, and so many more roles. You are not defined by your tragedy, It's only a piece of your jigsaw puzzle identity.
Jazmin Cazares, 9-year-old sister Jackie was killed in 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas
Dear future survivor,
I'm Jazmin Cazares and I'm 17. My little sister Jacklyn 'Jackie' Cazares was 9 years old when she was killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022.
I'm a student and an activist, but before all of that I'm a big sister.
I'm writing this for you, the next survivor of a mass shooting.
After losing someone, everything is either a blur or you'll be able to remember things extremely vividly. In my case, I still remember sitting on the floor in the choir room closet, still in lockdown at my school. I remember being told that Jackie had passed, everything was a blur after that.
Not even an hour after finding out about my sister's passing, the media had gotten my number. My phone was buzzing almost every second, to the point my phone started glitching. A day later, they found our house. You'll learn that you may have a love/hate relationship with the media. It can be frustrating at times, but they are the people that are going to get your story out, if you want it out. Honestly though, not all media will be sensitive to your situation. We've had some bad experiences, for example someone leaked hallway footage from my sister's school without letting the families know beforehand. As ugly as it can get, there are some media that are very genuine and respectful, they're the ones you want to stick with. Some will even become lifelong friends.
In the days after, it still didn't feel real. Even to this day, sometimes nothing feels real. Having to deal with anger, denial, all the unanswered questions, and the overwhelming guilt for being alive, etc. There's so many questions that will never be answered, or if they do it'll take time.
The guilt will eat you up sometimes, but that's when you need to rely on your support system. I've found a lot of support with other families that have lost a loved one, since they are people that understand exactly what we're going through. I've also found support in survivors from other mass shootings, they helped me with my activism, and learned what my sister probably felt in her final moments.
Not all families will agree on some things, and that's OK. Some relationships don't last, and some people may drift apart, but that's one of the unfortunate effects trauma has on us.
Something I wish I was told sooner in the days after was how rude and disrespectful people can be on the internet. So many people believe school shootings are fake. Those people won't hold back, especially on social media because there are virtually no consequences. You have to try to NOT let it get to you, sometimes it will and that's OK, words do hurt.
You just need to remember those people don't know you, and it's just some random person who probably has nothing better to do. The good part of social media is that, a majority of the time, the love and support outweighs the hate.
One of the hardest things you need to know about losing someone to a mass shooting is that you might not get to say goodbye. You need to remember that they loved you no matter what. No matter how many fights you had, or if you didn't say I love you enough, they know you did. Life changes when somebody dies, and your view of the world shifts.
You can see the best and the worst of people. You'll never be the same, but you'll learn to live with this. Quite honestly, I'm not there yet, but with all the support from people that love you, you'll get there eventually.
I want you to know that my sister was a fighter. She fought for her life for 77 minutes surrounded by her friends.
When she was pulled out of her classroom she was still alive, but her little heart couldn't fight anymore. Now we are going to fight as hard as she did for the rest of our lives.
Dan Williams, survivor of 2012 shooting at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio
Dear future survivor,
My name is Dan Williams, and I am a survivor of the Chardon High School shooting that occurred in 2012.
The shooting happened my sophomore year of high school and changed who I am forever.
After experiencing such a traumatic and life-altering event, going back to my normal life was impossible. All I can do is work towards what feels as close to a "new normal" as possible. It has been over 10 years since the shooting happened, and I am continuing to work through my healing journey.
Over the years, I have found, there are good days and bad days. However, with the proper therapy and finding a good support network, I am able to exist in my "new normal". I hope that this letter offers insight and comfort in this time of unknown turmoil and hardship, among many other things.
One of the most difficult parts of this journey was figuring out how to navigate returning to school. I still had to finish the remainder of my sophomore year, junior year, and senior year. Classes were no longer the main focus but figuring out how to move forward was constantly on my mind. I struggled to even walk into the building at first or go near the parts of the building that reminded me of what happened.
The first thing that helped me was understanding where my boundaries were and that they changed daily or even hourly. Through the remaining two years, I had to adapt to every moment, hour, day, week then year.
Through therapy, I learned to cope with my healing journey. The coping mechanisms for my bad days included deep breathing exercises for panic attacks or reading thank you notes and loving letters from friends and family when I felt worthless.
I also realized quickly how important a supportive network of people you trust was to make it through the hardest days. While none of this took away the nightmares, panic attacks, or how raw the emotions were, it allowed me to begin healing and working towards a "new normal." It is one of the most difficult things you will experience, and it is okay to navigate it at your own pace.
While you navigate the aftermath of what has happened, you will encounter times where you wish you had advice or someone who could shed light on something that you are struggling with. I remember those times all too well and hope that these things I learned can assist you in your healing journey. The first thing that I wish someone had told me was that everyone grieves differently and there is no correct way to work through your healing journey. I wish someone would have told me that it is OK to struggle and that seeking help through licensed mental health professionals is an important early step to working towards that "new normal."
I wish someone would have told me that trauma is something that never goes away and that you will always need to continue working on it. I wish that someone would have told me that it is OK to distance yourself from relationships or experiences that you feel are detrimental to your mental health, even if others disagree with you.
Lastly, I hope you know that you are loved and that you are a part of a family of survivors that no one wanted to be in, but that we are fortunate to have. If you ever need someone to talk to, rant to, or seek advice from, please feel free to reach out and I will be happy to lend an ear or direct you to resources that can help.
Zoe Touray, survivor of 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan
Dear future survivor,
I know you don't know me yet, but my name is Zoe Touray. I'm 18 years old, and a survivor of the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan.
I'm writing to you because I understand what you're going through and how you're feeling. At my school I had to jump out of a window and run for my life. I sat with friends as we wondered what would happen to us, and if we would make it out alive. I was you, and I'm here for you.
You're going to get a lot of outside noise. The reporters will come, not all are sensitive. Family may treat you differently at gatherings. The public gives you and your classmates sympathy. It was hard for me at first to get the stares, but you get used to them the first few days out in public. It's good to lean on your friends. They understand what you've been through and you all can take comfort in each other and grieve with each other. You need each other right now.
Lean on your community too. Everyone is feeling the loss. My community got "thoughts and prayers." At first it was nice to hear.
Then it made me angry because people who hadn't gone through what we did offered thoughts and prayers, but they were just words. My friends and classmates are still gone. Our innocence was still ripped away.
It helps to connect with other survivors though. Being able to connect with other people that didn't look at me with sympathy, and judgment. People who were me months ago or years ago. People like us. It is the best feeling to have a conversation with someone you just met for hours, because they understand. Everything.
I wish that someone would have told me about the aftermath. The jumpiness. Looking over your shoulder. The nightmares. I wish someone would have told me that even after a year I still wouldn't feel like my old self, and that she may never come back. But that's OK because although the pain is still there, the new person I've become has learned and grown so much.
I wish someone would have told me to look for the small moments of happiness in between the grief, because they are lasting, and you'll remember them forever.
Other people should know being a survivor isn't easy. We have our moments of sadness, anger, guilt. We are also some of the strongest and most resilient people. We overcame a traumatic event, we survived and we are here to carry on the legacy of those who aren't here with us today.
Although it's a club that no one joins voluntarily, it is an honor to be a member.
Reach out whenever you need me. I'm just a call away.
Natalie Barden, 7-year-old brother Daniel was killed in 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut
Dear future school shooting survivor,
My name is Natalie Barden. Almost 10 years ago, my 7-year-old brother Daniel was murdered in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
When this happened, I was just about to turn 11. I was devastated and destroyed, but I was also in a state of denial for a long time, especially because I was so young.
I grew up watching my parents be vocal about gun violence prevention, but found it too difficult to do that myself for a long time. It has been 10 years and I still find it difficult to talk about, though I know it's important.
I think about Daniel every day, I cannot put into words how much I miss him and how I will never get to see who he will grow up to be.
I am writing to you, a future school shooting survivor, as you are now part of this sad little club, that is actually not so little anymore. Though we've made progress and there are school shootings that have been prevented, I know our country is not yet free of school shootings.
I am incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing support system.
After the shooting in Sandy Hook, my house was constantly filled with family and friends who had traveled from all over.
My cousins became my best friends, taking me shopping and to the movies, and my aunt moved in with us for a long time.
Obviously, our life was changed after the shooting. I have no idea what my life would have looked like if it never would have happened, because it is intertwined into who I am now.
My dad changed his entire career. When I was little, he was a musician. He would stay with us during the day and then gig at night.
Now he is the co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing violence by recognizing the warning signs of individuals who are at risk of hurting themselves and others, and then connecting them with the help that they need. I also became involved in gun violence prevention as I got older.
The shooting and growing up in a sort of spotlight gave me a lot of anxiety as well, which I still have to this day.
I think about being shot a lot, or someone coming into my house. I'm not sure I'm the best person to give advice on how to cope, as I'm still trying to figure it out. There are periods where the anxiety or the grief feels insurmountable, but there are also times that I feel incredibly happy and safe.
I remember right after Daniel was killed someone told me that the rest of my life would be a rollercoaster, and so far that has proven to be true. I always try to think about the happy moments, the things I do remember about Daniel.
What I think people need to know about surviving a school shooting, or losing someone in a school shooting, is that it affects you forever.
People often ask me about what it was like to go through something like that. Though I understand the question, I feel like I didn't go through it, but am still going through it every day.
Lastly, something I want to tell you, something I wish someone had told me, is that going through a school shooting is part of your history and part of your experiences, but it doesn't have to define you or become who you are.
Missy Jenkins Smith, paralyzed in 1997 shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky
Dear future survivor of a school shooting,
My name is Missy Jenkins Smith and I live in Murray, Kentucky, with my husband and two sons ages 15 and 12 years old. The reason I'm writing to you today is due to an experience we unfortunately now share.
Twenty five years ago, the thought of a school shooting was never a concern anyone seemed to have.
On Dec. 1, 1997, me and my twin sister Mandy's concerns were catching up with our friends after Thanksgiving break and getting our permits to drive later that month. That morning, a 14-year-old boy pulled a .22-caliber pistol out of his backpack and shot at us while we were praying in the lobby of our high school. We were shocked that something like this could happen but unfortunately it's a common occurrence today.
My twin sister and I were forced to watch one of our classmates that died get shot in the head. Three of our classmates were killed and five including me were injured.
I was one of the most seriously injured. As the bullet entered my left shoulder it bounced around, missing major arteries and organs, but did hit one of my lungs, passed beside my spinal cord and exited out of the right side of my back. The bullet didn't even exit my shirt. This would result in me being paralyzed from the chest down.
Even though my injury is permanent I was somehow able to come to terms with it immediately because I learned that one of the girls who died was also shot in the same place I was but she bled internally. I realized that I was getting a second chance at life and the fact that I was paralyzed was nothing compared to what could have happened. I could have died that day.
This made me realize that I had two choices. I could give up or I could choose to be happy and focus on the life I still have that three had taken from them so quickly.
Even though that day probably made you feel out of control, remember that you are the one that is in control. Focus on what you have and not what you may have lost.
There are times that you will get frustrated, but it's OK for you to scream, cry and let those frustrations out but then focus on the positives in life.
I learned this after reaching a point where I wanted to give up, because it was too hard to learn how to navigate my life after the shooting. Many things encouraged me to keep going and one was the many people from all over the world who took the time to let me know that I was not alone and encouraged me to move forward.
I realized that even when bad things happen in this world there are still good things out there. Also, watching my twin sister be a teenager and live her life made me focus on recovering from my injury and getting back to life, not letting that day control me.
I wish I would have known after the shooting at my school how this day would continue to affect me throughout my life. I not only would have to struggle to live my life in a wheelchair immediately after but I would continue to struggle as I got older. I've learned to cope with this struggle by taking my experience and giving it a purpose.
Turning it into something positive in hopes that others will learn from my experience.
By doing this I feel like I have control. I then felt like I had the power to take something so negative that happened in my life and turn it to something positive that could be used to help others.
I want to encourage you to take control of your situation by focusing on the positives that remain in your life and put purpose to your experience.
You don't have to let this experience break you down. It's up to you to make that decision.
Bryanna Love, survivor of 2022 shooting at St. Louis Central Visual & Performing Arts High School in St. Louis, Missouri
Dear future survivor,
When I was asked to write this for you, I wasn't sure where to start. There is so much to say and the issue is so much bigger than me or you.
I wish I didn't have to write this, and I hope none of you ever experience this.
I hope none of you ever have to feel the adrenaline rush of fleeing from a school building you consider home because gunshots now ring throughout the halls.
I hope you never have to experience waiting in a parking lot down the street from your school, not knowing whether your friends or teachers or siblings or cousins are going to make it to that parking lot.
I have little to offer you but a checklist of sorts. Lists help my brain process things. I hope it helps yours too.
- Always keep your phone on you. You don't want to know what it's like to be hiding in a corner, unable to text your family or your partner or your friends that you love them.
- Accept that you'll have to reckon with your own mortality. It will come and go in waves. First when you're physically there, living out a nightmare scenario, you'll have to contend with the fact that you could very well die. You might even have visions of the worst case scenario in your head, of blood pooling in the hallways and gore decorating the walls, right next to posters about the joys of reading. Then later, when you realize that by some stroke of luck, you're still alive and feeling and seeing and hearing. You'll appreciate every warm meal more, be just a little more grateful for the people around you. You'll fully realize that every time you walk out of your front door, tomorrow is not guaranteed.
- Acknowledge that things will not be normal for a long time. Neither you nor your peers or your teachers will have any idea what the next steps forward are. It's easy to feel helpless. That's OK.
I hope you're upset. I hope you're angry. I hope you know your voice and actions matter. I'm not just going to tell you to vote harder -- It's clearly not working.
The people with power to change things don't want it to work. They'll stall any and all legislation until this happens to every school in the country; They do not care, and they will not care as long as they continue to profit off of the status quo.
As such, I encourage you to rock the boat. I encourage you to kick and scream and fight until they have no choice but to listen to you. Do whatever it takes.
Heather Martin, survivor of 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado
I write this letter with the hope of providing comfort and sharing love to those who have been impacted by mass violence.
Two days away from my 18th birthday, I barricaded in a small office with 59 other students for three hours when two seniors killed 12 of my classmates and my typing teacher before killing themselves.
I escaped physically uninjured, but that only increased my feelings of guilt -- guilt for not only surviving but also for struggling as much as I did. I told myself all kinds of things to minimize my trauma -- I didn't lose a loved one, I hadn't been shot, I wasn't in the library where many of the murders took place. Even in the initial horror-filled days following the shooting, I couldn't accept that my story was that bad, that my experience was that bad… especially when so many others had it worse than me. I couldn't and didn't label myself as a survivor because I didn't feel I deserved it.
In the days, months, and even years of the aftermath, the feelings I remember the most are all of anger: I was angry at the media for being there, for getting our stories wrong. I was angry at people talking about it at all when they weren't even there. I was angry at those trying to connect to my experience with phrases similar to "I could have been" or "I would have been." I think I was mostly angry at those who told me what they would have done had they been there or had they been in my situation.
Anger is so much easier than grief.
I was angriest at them because those were my nightmares -- what I should have done, what I could have done, what I didn't know, what I should have known or prevented. These dreams plagued me for years, and truthfully sometimes a variation of them still creep in, especially in April.
Anger is so much easier than grief.
Honestly, I still get angry as it keeps happening, when more and more children and more communities are starting this cruel journey and becoming members of a club with an inexcusably high price.
I went off to college and I didn't want to tell people my story because I was scared of their judgment. I knew that if I thought my own experience wasn't worthy of being traumatized, others certainly would think the same. I tried to advocate for myself with my professors when an assignment was triggering, but was met with indifference; I had to write the essay or I would fail, my personal narrative couldn't be over three pages or they wouldn't read all of it -- to me, all of this reinforced the idea that my story wasn't good enough and people didn't care about what I went through.
I ended up dropping out, developed an eating disorder and dabbled in recreational drugs to help me cope and escape.
I went out of town for every year mark to avoid the media circus and the painful memories.
In fact, it wasn't until 10 years later when Mr. Frank DeAngelis, the principal, invited the class of '99 back to the school to honor the year mark that I finally felt normal again, well a new normal at least.
As a senior, we never went back, we never had to, so this would be my first time back in the school aside from getting my school supplies just weeks after the shooting. I was anxious and terrified, certain I was making a mistake going back into that building.
It wasn't a mistake.
My classmates and I honored and mourned for the 13 when Frank read the names at 11:21 a.m., something he does annually. And I was also reminded of my life at Columbine before the shooting: being in the musicals, having a piece of sticky cinnamon roll stuck on my nose as I talked to my crush, singing "I'm a little teapot" in the commons when I was initiated onto the swim team. I remembered all of the good times I had had before April 20.
I reconnected with my Columbine Rebel family and discovered what it was like to not be alone in my struggles.
That very year, I re-enrolled in college and eventually earned my bachelor's in English and received my teaching license. Thirteen years after the shooting, I graduated college, which was also the year the shooting at the Aurora [movie] theater rocked the Colorado community again. Other class of '99 graduates and I founded a non-profit called The Rebels Project that supports other survivors of mass violence -- a resource we desperately needed in the years following Columbine.
Now, I'm executive director of The Rebels Project and in my 10th year of teaching high school in Aurora. I teach -- you guessed it -- seniors!
They know my story, though I started out telling them my history purely because I wanted them to take the drills seriously. However, in me being vulnerable and open with them, I opened the lines of communication and became the trusted adult for many of them. In fact, they gave me feedback while I was drafting this letter.
Two of my yearbook students shared, "We have felt our grieving and ways of coping have been validated because of Ms.Martin's experiences shared with us. We have a sense of safety and comfort when speaking with her about personal issues, which can be very hard to do with a teacher."
Yes, drills freak me out a little bit, and I'm pretty obsessive about safety protocols, but at my school we've been through some trauma, specifically intense gun violence trauma. Having gone through the trauma I did, I can better support not only myself, but my students and colleagues.
I still have rough days and rough year marks -- April is notoriously complicated for me, even years later. But I've learned to give myself grace… and that therapy truly does help.
One of the many lessons I've learned in the years following the shooting at Columbine High School, and during my recovery, is that trauma is not a competition. My experience is my own, different from others, and it is valid. Another is that I will never be the same person I was before April 20, 1999, and that's okay.
I would change the events of that day in a heartbeat, but I am certainly proud of the person I am today -- and a large part of who I am is because of my journey in the aftermath. I want others to know that it does get better, I promise. I am a survivor. And you are too.
Mandy Jenkins, survivor of 1997 shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky
Dear future survivor of a school shooting,
My name is Mandy Jenkins, I'm from Paducah, Kentucky.
I have a twin sister who is two minutes younger than me and has been my best friend my entire life. We shared everything growing up from our bedroom, clothes, friends, and experiences, but we share one experience that you now share with us and I'm sorry for that.
On Dec. 1, 1997, a 14-year-old boy that we knew brought a .22-caliber pistol to school and shot at the prayer circle we attended before school hours with other classmates.
We were only 15 years old when this happened.
The first thing I saw was a girl get shot in the head. I stood there unable to process what I was seeing when suddenly I felt something go through my hair, scratching the back of my head. This would immediately send me to the ground as I unconsciously knew that this was not a good thing. I realized my twin sister Missy was already on the ground several feet in front of me. She was laying on her back in a funny position. I knew this wasn't good. I crawled over to her and laid over her body while the shooter continued to fire the gun.
We would find out later that she had been shot in the left shoulder, the bullet had bounced around in her body missing all major arteries and organs but had hit one of her lungs and passed beside her spinal cord, before exiting out the right side of her back.
The doctor in the emergency room would find the bullet inside her shirt. We would soon find out that Missy was paralyzed from the chest down, or a T4 level.
Later that day we would learn the terrible news that five of our classmates, including Missy, were injured and three classmates were deceased.
I'm sorry that you had to witness something so terrible at such a young age. I unfortunately have been where you are. I know you're scared, confused, lost and trying to make sense of it all, but please keep one thing in mind. You survived and that's OK! Over the next few days, weeks, months, you will be scared. Sometimes you may not know what you are exactly scared of.
You will go through so many emotions. Sadness, anger, frustration, and even happiness and that's OK. Do not let the negative feelings consume you. Remember that you are in charge of how you will let this event in your life define you. It's also OK to be selfish and focus on taking care of yourself. You may have not physically gotten hurt but you have emotionally, you are a survivor, not a victim.
I went through all I described above. I even stopped eating. Then when I tried to eat I would immediately get sick. I had to slowly incorporate food back into my life.
The shooting still impacts me today by watching my sister at age 40 struggle to get around as her arms and shoulders have endured injuries and she has arthritis that causes her constant pain. We had no idea that this was in her future. She has already gone through so much and to see her struggle like this just seems cruel and unfair.
I want to leave you with something I wish I would have known after the shooting we went through.
There will come a day where you will fear that people will forget what happened to you. They will forget how terrible it was and the struggle you went through but don't worry, they won't forget. What really matters is that you remember that you went through this painful event and that you will continue to live your life, but it will always be there.
Whether you hear a song, pass an old classmate at the grocery store or another shooting happens, you will never forget.
Use this to do what you can to help prevent this from happening to anyone else. Educate others on your experience to help prevent this from happening over and over.
Finally, please know that there is never a time when you should just "get over it." There is no getting over something like this. You will never forget, but you will learn to go on living your life.
Isabelle Laymance, survivor of 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas
Dear future survivor,
My name is Isabelle Laymance. I am 19 years old and I survived the Santa Fe High School shooting in May 2018.
I was one of the nine students trapped in the art rooms ceramic closet where two lives were taken. That day, I witnessed the deaths of my best friend, cousin, childhood friend, and many classmates. It took an enormous toll on my mental health and life in general.
You may be wondering why you're receiving this. I am here to share a little insight on how being a survivor has affected me and might also affect you.
Moving forward from this experience will be extremely hard. You might not even realize it, but it will affect your family as well.
Days after my school shooting, I started therapy to help cope with the anxiety, trauma, depression, guilt, and PTSD. My family started counseling as well, shortly after I did. Since I was going through so much on my end, I never really noticed that my family was also affected from the event. My mother was better at hiding her emotions than my father. He actually showed signs of trauma as well. However, my mind was too busy dealing with everything going on inside of me to see that he wasn't OK.
My father experienced anger, worry, relief, and happiness all within a few hours. Anger from not being able to see nor get close to me, worried because he knew I was safe but alone, and finally felt relief and happiness when I got off the bus and he saw me. During the weeks and months after, he experienced depression from having to relive that day over and over in counseling, but was also relieved that the shooter was in custody. The way the event changed me also had an impact on his feelings. I went through something traumatizing and he knew all he could do for me was stay strong when he could and be there whenever I needed support.
As for my mother, she was extremely well at hiding what she was going through to protect me from being worried about her, so that I could focus on my needs. The effects on her made her more protective to where they basically put me in a giant bubble from the world. She also became more patient with me as I was going through an extreme amount of trauma, memory loss, and mood changes. She was also more aware of my feelings and what I was going through, so she knew what steps to take next to help me going forward. Both my father and mother kept their feelings aside so well that I never really knew they were going through anything.
What I would like to say to future families is to put your child before your own feelings, because I believe if they expressed to me how they were feeling during my healing process, I would have shut down and stopped sharing my problems to protect them. I am very grateful they gave me the space to process my own emotions, while I wish I could have helped them too.
Something I wish someone would have told me is that it's OK to not be OK. Never underestimate your trauma as it is a part of you. You're going to feel like you're doing so well and then it will hit you out of nowhere again. This is part of the healing process. You have changed and may lose interest in the things you love. You will find new things that make the struggle you go through every day worth it. It's going to take time to get back up and moving forward.
From one survivor to another, going through a traumatic event, especially one like this, will be one of the biggest challenges in your life.
You can choose whether or not to share your story. I chose to share my story, as I needed to get the truth out there and to be able to help others in the future. It is perfectly all right to keep your story private and share with only family and friends. Your growth and healing are the most important thing in the world right now.
All I really want to say is to just keep pushing through, stay connected with the ones you love as much as you can, and stay strong, as the hardest part of your life has just begun.
You are not alone.
Brandon Abzug, survivor of 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida
Dear future student survivor,
It is always challenging to discuss a topic like this, no matter how old you are or how much you prepare. I hope my following words are comforting to you, in that you know that you are loved and supported.
My name is Brandon Abzug. I am currently a first-year law student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. I am also a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting.
I was once in your shoes, and in many respects, I still am.
Overcoming tragedy as a school shooting survivor is a lifelong process, and there's no universal solution for dealing with adversity. But over time you will learn and grow, and you can use your prior experiences to gain strength and help make the world a better place.
I would like to share with you a very special story. Over the years it has become a favorite of mine.
During my junior year of high school, I remember one day parking my car and walking toward my local gym. As I approached the entrance doors, I heard someone say "Brandon", so I stopped, turned around, and saw my classmate Carmen standing there, smiling. We exchanged hellos -- that was pretty much it -- and then went our separate ways. The next day in my sixth-period class, she sat a couple rows behind and to the left of me. I remember going up to her and saying, "Carmen, it was nice to see you at the gym yesterday, I was honestly kind of surprised to see you there," to which she wittily responded, "Really? I was surprised to see you there."
I hope that put a smile on your face. While this brief anecdote may seem trivial, sometimes the mundane things in life are among the most important. She was one of the smartest, most clever individuals I have ever known. One year later, Carmen was killed in the mass shooting at my high school.
So why am I telling you this? Because though these vivid memories of those who you lost may seem painful and striking to you now, in time you will remember them as a blessing. Our time together may come and go, but one's legacy can live on forever. The lives of those who are no longer here will always be with you, with their memories by your side.
At times I reflect upon the differences between life before and after experiencing a school shooting.
You are at a crossroads in your life, where your childhood and innocence are now intersecting with the more difficult and serious realities of life. Your naivete may dissipate, but I urge that you never lose an unwavering optimism that the world can and will be improved.
My faith has always been in people, knowing that one day we will right the wrongs of the past and present by instituting changes for the better. I truly believe that. Yet always remember that this struggle cannot be won by fighting against those we hate, but rather, defending the people and communities that we love. This is how we will make a difference, and you will help be the reason why.
Lastly, and most importantly, know that regardless of who you are, where you come from, what you look like, and specifically, regardless of how old you are, you can be the change you wish to see in the world. Never let anyone ever tell you otherwise. We are all with you in this journey -- together.
Missy Mendo, survivor of 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado
Dear future survivor,
My name is Missy Mendo and I am a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Sadly, I knew you would be reading this because I feel school shootings have become an unresolved epidemic.
I hope my letter will give guidance, context, and perspective for the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, and decades to come. I am here for you if you ever need anything. A hug from another survivor is different than a hug from someone trying to console you. I have been a survivor for well over 20 years now and there are things I wish I knew in the beginning, middle and current time frames.
In the days and weeks after Columbine, I was 14 years old sleeping in between my parents with my shoes on. I felt like I always needed to be ready for the "what if'' scenarios because I never thought something like this could ever happen to me.
At the time, school shootings were not "a thing" and I felt that I was still in shock for a very long time. I wish mental health was not such a stigma when my shooting happened and there weren't any mental health professionals, to my knowledge, that could help with my specific situation.
In the years since my shooting, I have taught myself a coping mechanism that has helped me get through situations that may be scary to me. Being overly prepared to travel, going to concerts, and going to a special event will help you with all endeavors. Creating lists, planning ahead, looking for exit strategies in new areas and creating any comfort while away from home are all things I practice to be more prepared and aware of situational surroundings.
Another thing that was hard to cope with, in the beginning, was hugging my parents. Survivor's guilt can come in many different forms.
My form of guilt came from the inability to hug my mom and dad. It wasn't that I felt like they "didn't get" it or they "didn't understand". It was because there were other parents out there that would never hug their children again. I felt guilty for receiving love and comfort and I wish that someone would have told me, it is OK to hug your loved ones. Hold each other tight because love and comfort are going to be a huge part of your recovery process. "The greatest gift you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return."
In the following years, I learned that every anniversary will be different and peer support will help you astronomically.
On your anniversary, you can take the day off, go to work, go on vacation or participate in acts of service, however, the date will always remain the same. You can't avoid it or the emotions that are married with that day. Your community may plan something each year for the anniversary. I have found participating in the day's events with your peers has helped. If you are unable to participate, try a random act of kindness and then treat yourself to some self care.
On a separate note, I feel compelled to share a piece of advice another survivor gave to me. She said, everyone grieves differently. Someone who was in the same room or area as you may not be on the same path of grief that you are on. Remember that everyone has their own timeline with grief and everyone is right on time for their own grief timeline.
Lastly, be resourceful. Being a survivor will be with you through your entire life and possibly your children's lives.
A resource I found was peer support. Because of what I have been through, I searched for others like me and found The Rebels Project.
My connections fostered hope of feeling less alone and I have become so passionate about helping other survivors that I am now a volunteer as the director of community outreach for The Rebels Project. It is a peer support group that creates connections with other survivors of mass tragedy. I have the amazing opportunity to help other communities and connect with other victims who have been in a similar situation like mine.
The group still helps me to this day.
I am a mother now and the thought of my child entering into the school system was absolutely terrifying. This thought was so heartbreaking and I decided to give therapy another try. Also, I reached out and asked other moms in The Rebels Project how they coped with their children going to school. Though I still battle this fear every day, their support and guidance gives me feelings that my child has a possibility of living a "normal life" and that my challenges don't have to be faced alone.
Sending you all the love, light, and good vibes along your journey. You are not alone.
Nicole Melchionno, survivor of 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut
Dear future school shooting survivor,
My name is Nicole. I am 17 years old and a senior in high school. In 2012, when I was 7, a gunman entered my elementary school and killed 26 innocent people which changed my town forever.
It was a normal Friday and my class was getting ready to make snowflakes when bullets fired through the glass in the lobby and I hid with my class in lockdown, terrified, until the police evacuated us to the firehouse nearby. We then began to process the magnitude of that day and endured the aftermath that followed.
I dealt with anxiety following the shooting and it was hard for me to do normal, everyday things that little kids usually do, such as having a playdate with friends.
Over the years, as I think about what happened over and over, I learn to grasp a better understanding of it and how to move on while growing around this scarring event that has changed my identity. I no longer let it define me.
Having our town in the headlines years after the tragedy can feel isolating. Being a survivor of gun violence is hard, but there is an amazingly strong and powerful network of survivors all across the country who are fighting for a safer future, and have been in the same shoes that you are in now.
It is important to know that you can always fall back on one another. You share a deep connection that no one else can truly relate to.
Simply talking about what you went through and how the months and years following went can help the healing process, although you will forever feel a sense of guilt and heartbreak.
In my experience, since I was so young at the time of the shooting, I did not really understand the depth of what happened and the impact it had on our nation.
Many years after is when I really started to mentally grasp it. I began working with others to use past tragedy and turn it into our motivation and everyday purpose for change. I believe we can have a future with fewer guns. As a country, we have experienced such frequent gun violence that we have become numb. We see another shooting in the headlines and look away. But we must not be numb.
The overwhelming majority of Americans share common ground in support of gun safety measures, yet Congress stands divided and fails to protect us and we will not tolerate that.
We won't stop fighting until we implement serious life-saving measures. It is a shame on any lawmaker who takes profit from the gun lobby over human lives being lost every single day. Gun violence has no direct target, it affects everyone.
We have become a nation of so-called lucky survivors. These weapons of war are plaguing us one school, playground, movie theater, grocery store, synagogue, street corner, etc. at a time.
Our panic of being shot as we leave the house is distinctly an American fear. I am sad that you are now part of this survivor network, but we are all here for each and every one of you, and our voices will be heard.
The views and opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.
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