Add To Cart

Section 17
Community and Parental Mourning After a School Shooting

Question 17 | Test | Table of Contents

The Community: The community refers to the cliques and crowds in which the killers and victims circulated, their churches, the high school itself, the town of Littleton and those from beyond its borders who were so strongly moved, or simply curious, that they felt a compulsion to journey to the place of the killings and join in a "community of bereavement." The term was coined by Edward Linenthal (1998), an authority on memorializing, to describe the crowds that amassed following the Oklahoma City bombings.

Certain objects that play a central role in adolescent life were important in the way students mourned the loss of their friends. Cars are a symbol of independence, freedom, and seemingly limitless possibilities. Rachel Scott's Honda and John Tomlin's pick-up truck, found abandoned near the school after they were murdered, quickly became shrines for grieving classmates. Surviving students found comfort in being near the vehicles, in decorating them with bouquets of flowers, notes and poems (often sealed in baggies to protect them from the weather) and blue and white balloons (the colors of the high school and of the Columbine flower). Adults erected a canopy over the car, as they did some of the other shrines, to protect them from Denver's wettest April in one hundred years (Dube, 1999; Kukel, 1999).

The Internet, too, is a pivotal part of adolescent life, allowing teenagers to keep in touch after they return home from school and often well into the night; it plays the part for some that the telephone did a decade ago. Within weeks of the shooting, each victim had his or her own Web site, the sites being interlinked as a "web-ring" so that visitors could move easily from one to the next, as though walking from room to room in a gallery. At some point during the following year the Web-ring concept was discarded in favor of independent websites. Most offered information on all the victims, or general information about the tragedy, as well as links to other sites about Columbine. As of March, 2000, only three Web sites remained that were dedicated to individual victims of the shootings. Although Web-rings differ only slightly from independent Web sites in the structuring of their hypertext linkages, the former may symbolize greater respect (for example, "Each student gets his own, nobody has to share") and certainly involves a higher level of maintenance for the site manager.

Yearbook signing is another important ritual of adolescents. For many teenagers the closest reference for the experience of death may be graduation from high school, when friends vanish into the mists of college and adulthood, often never to be heard from again. Lauren Townsend was buried in a white casket so that, during visitation, mourners could write farewell messages on it with felt marker pens (Lewis, 1999). This practice may strike some as sacrilegious, with its suggestion of graffiti and desecration of religious shrines. Others considered it the kind of "innovation" that is needed by a society many of whose mourning rituals have become hollow and perfunctory (Pine, 1976).

Soon after the Columbine shootings, a wall of two-by-fours and garden lattice was erected in imitation of the wall around the Oklahoma City Federal Building (Fagan, 1999, April 24). The Oklahoma City wall was constructed to keep the curious away from the dangerous rubble but immediately became a medium for mourners to express their grief by leaving notes and small presents within and along the lattices. Linenthal dated the practice to the opening of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial wall in November of 1982, where visitors frequently left medals, flags, family photographs, and boots and jackets (Linenthal, 1998; Niebuhr & Wilgoren, 1999). He attributed the growing popularity of the practice to people's desire to overcome feelings of powerlessness and to unite into a community of bereavement (Linenthal, as quoted in Niebuhr & Wilgoren, 1999). For some the wall may evoke more ancient images of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where visitors' prayers and messages are slipped into the cracks between the worn stones.

In addition to the anger and grief, some reported positive experiences, a growth of wisdom, a broadening of consciousness, a deepening of understanding of life. Classmates reported becoming aware, for their first time, of their mortality. "I realized that I could have been one of the students who didn't make it out alive... I started to wonder how I would be remembered... Would they say I lived my life to the fullest?" (Aaron Welsh, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. D7). Others described demonstrations of group solidarity: "...there were people I hardly knew, comforting me and hugging me" (Janelle Behan, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. DT) and surprising mobilizations of strength and courage: "There was a group of six boys who literally saved all our lives... It was kind of funny because many of these boys are thought of as goofy kids in everyday life..." (Janelle Behan, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. D7). Others reported experiencing reconciliations with their families, and a renewed appreciation of life.
Survivor guilt was everywhere. "Why Lauren? What did she ever do in her life to deserve such a fate? Why not me?" (Rachel Goodwin, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. D7).

The Parents
This kind of tragedy strikes the victims' parents' hardest of all. The loss of a child creates a particularly intense form of grief. The parent mourns the loss of the child as well as the loss of a part of his or her self, since love for the child includes a narcissistic component (Furman, 1976). The parent may lose his or her parental role, which may be central to his or her adult identity. Immortality, in the form of memories, family stories, and genetic materials, is lost as well (Schwartz, 1977). Further loss occurs in the form of the hopes and dreams the parents may have entertained for the child. Survivor guilt is an inevitable seqeulae (Kliman, 1977). Why couldn't it have been me instead? Parents struggle to make sense out of the child's brief life and untimely death. Misty Bernall, the mother of shooting victim Cassie Bernall, wrote a short, touching book about her daughter called "She Said Yes: The Untimely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall" (Bernall, 1999). The title refers to an incident immediately preceding her death, recounted here by a classmate: I couldn't see anything when those guys came up to Cassie (the killers), but I could recognize her voice... One of them asked her if she believed in God... and then she said yes. She must have been scared, but her voice didn't sound shaky. It was strong. Then they asked her why, though they didn't give her a chance to respond. They just blew her away. (Bernall, 1999, pp. 12, 13) According to this account, Cassie Bernall was a martyr in the most traditional and literal sense, "a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion" (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1979). Thus her death is part of a tradition including Thomas Beckett, Joan of Arc, John the Baptist and others.

Tom Mauser, whose son was a shooting victim, found himself drawn toward gun control advocacy. Ten days after the shooting he addressed a crowd of 12,000 protesting the National Rifle Association meeting in Denver. When President Clinton gave his State of the Union address in January of 2000, Mauser was one of those invited to sit in the gallery (Janofsky, 2000). Following this, Mauser took a yearlong leave from his job with the Colorado Department of Transportation to serve as director for political affairs for SAFE (Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic) Colorado a not-for-profit lobbying organization (SAFE Colorado, 2000). Most of the parents of victims banded together in a project to board up the library where the killings took place and to build a new library, classrooms, and atrium open to the sky. They met as a group two or three times a week to socialize, provide mutual support, and strategize about the 3.1 million dollars they had to raise to complete the project (Bernall, 1999).

During an appearance on the "Today Show" to mark the one-year anniversary of Columbine, Dawn Anna, Lauren Townsend's mother, acting as spokesperson for the group, described a sense of haste to get the renovation underway. "Because of the outdoor classrooms, it has to be built during the summer. Once we take care of the children, we can deal with our own grief which we have been pushing down" (Touchet, 2000). Apparently a year later parental grief had not been adequately addressed. The only parents to exclude themselves from the library project were Michael and Yolanda Shoels, the parents of Isaiah Shoels, the only black teenage among those slain. The Shoels filed a lawsuit against the parents of the killers, claiming that they had the responsibility and the opportunity to prevent the slayings. In other school shootings, parents of victims have sued parents of killers; however, none of the other Columbine parents had chosen to file suit (Belkin, 1999). Race played a pivotal role in their decision. Isaiah Shoels and his two siblings constituted three of the 16 black students in a school of 1,965. An eyewitness reports one of the gunmen remarking, "Look, there's the little n( )," before killing him. Isaiah's father remarked in a New York Times interview, "Should that be the last thing you have to hear before the last breath leaves your body?" (Belkin, 1999, p. 89). Before this, the Shoels had been the victims of Littleton hate crimes involving vandalism of their home and car.

Misty Bernall argued for forgiveness: It's normal, I think, to want to bite back, whether by filing a lawsuit of by other means... Even if we did sue and won, no amount of money is going to bring our children back. Besides, they lost children too, and it would cruel to act as if their grief were any less than our own (Bernall, 1999, p. 130).

Because the killing of Isaiah Shoels was a hate crime, and the other killings were random and opportunistic, the Shoels had a fundamentally different experience from that of the white parents. By filing a law suit, touring the country speaking on his son's behalf, and allying himself with community organizers like the Reverend Al Sharpton (Belkin, 1999), Mr. Shoels brought the killing to the attention of the American public, increasing awareness of hate crimes, and hastening the day when such crimes are a page from the past.

- Fast, Jonathan D.; After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death; Social Work, Oct2003, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p484-491

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information regarding Community and Parental Mourning After a School Shooting. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Goodrum, S., Thompson, A. J., Ward, K. C., & Woodward, W. (2018). A case study on threat assessment: Learning critical lessons to prevent school violence. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 5(3), 121–136.

Lunn, L., Campion, K., James, S., & Velez, G. (2021). A framework for guiding transformative growth after school shootings. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 27(3), 486–496.

Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2020). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media, 9(4), 493–498.

Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227–234.

How does the sudden death of a child create a particularly intense form of grief?
To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Table of Contents