Healing process after a tragedy sometimes public, sometimes quiet

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The communities of Jonesboro, Ark., and Littleton, Colo., have been down the painful road that lies ahead for Virginia Tech’s students, faculty, parents and the town of Blacksburg, Va.

The April 16 attack that left 32 students and faculty members plus the gunman dead at Virginia Tech brought back difficult memories for thousands of people who were affected by killers who took aim at other schools and workplaces over the last decade and beyond.

For a priest who worked in Jonesboro, where five people were killed on a middle-school playground in 1998, and for the Colorado father of one of the 15 people who died at Columbine High School in 1999, the latest school shooting put them once more into the position of using their experiences dealing with grief to try to help another community do the same.

Father Jack Harris was pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro on March 24, 1998, when two students from Westside Middle School took guns owned by one of their grandfathers, pulled a fire alarm at the school, and started shooting as children and adults filed onto the playground. Four students and a teacher were killed; another 10 people were wounded.

Father Harris, a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., spent a great deal of time over the next five years simply “being present” at Westside Middle School, as he described it. He wasn’t there to be a counselor — there were plenty of professionals on hand for that — and most of the kids he dealt with probably had no idea he was a priest, he said.

In the days after the shooting, he began simply hanging around the school, watching sports practices and games, attending various public events and chatting with the students, mostly about mundane things.

What developed was a relationship where the students knew him as a “safe” adult they could talk to if they wanted, but who wouldn’t expect them to always be discussing their emotions, as the teens often thought was the case with counselors, teachers and parents, Father Harris explained.

“One thing I could do is to let them be close to me and not be confronted by the shooting,” he told Catholic News Service. “They’d bring it up if they wanted to but they rarely did. I was not a parent or a teacher, that made me safe.”

Tom Mauser took a much more public path to dealing with the death of his son, Daniel, who was a 15-year-old sophomore at Columbine when two students went on a shooting rampage April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Without really setting out to do so, Mauser soon found himself in front of microphones speaking in favor of gun control. Over time, Mauser became one of the more visible survivors of Columbine victims. He has written columns for newspapers, appeared on “Oprah,” met with groups of all sizes, spoken at the White House and been arrested for protesting at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.

It’s often hard to be the public voice on such a personal topic, Mauser acknowledged. “You sort of get used to it, but a lot of times I break up when I’m talking. I’m never quite sure if I’m prolonging the grief or helping get past it.”

Mauser and his wife, Linda, also keep Daniel’s memory alive in other ways. The Web site, http://www.danielmauser.com is a comprehensive collection of material about their son, other victims, gun control, bullying and school violence. It includes suggestions for how to find and offer comfort with words, letters, music and personal contact.

Normally visited by thousands of people a month, since the Virginia Tech shooting, the site is seen by thousands a day.

“For our family the Web site has been very helpful,” he told CNS. “It keeps people knowing who Daniel was.”

The site also details fundraising, which pays for a scholarship, bought a bench in a Colorado state park and built a school and a library at another school, both in Guatemala.

When the family visited Guatemala in 1999, the Mausers spent some time with the communities that would benefit from projects named for Daniel.

“It put things in a special context,” he said.

“When we were there, Guatemala was just coming out of 30 years of civil war,” he said. “We realized how many people there have lost loved ones too.”

Seeing the good that could be accomplished with just the $40,000 it took to build the school was inspiring, he said. Having a library in Guatemala in the name of their son who died in the Columbine library was an especially touching, symbolic way of remembering Daniel, he added.

As for Father Harris, since the Jonesboro shooting, he’s become involved with the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Through the group, he has traveled around the country to train local leaders to deal with their own grieving communities after shootings, Hurricane Katrina and other crises.

As he found in Jonesboro, an important part of helping people heal is to simply be available to listen as they process emotions that may come up years later — for example, after another shocking act of public violence.

Now pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Pine Bluff, Ark., Father Harris said his relationship with the Jonesboro “kids” continues. As word spread April 16 about Virginia Tech’s shootings, a group of the now college-age former students of Westside called Father Harris.

A few days later, he drove to Jonesboro and had dinner with the Westside alumni. They talked about Virginia Tech and discussed the emotions and memories stirred up by the news from Blacksburg, he said. For this group of young adults, part of what they also needed to process was their feelings about having friends in the military and hearing about the deaths of their peers in Iraq, Father Harris said.

“They have not lost any of their classmates in war yet,” he said. “But when that happens we will have to look at it in connection to what happened in the schoolyard.”

And he’ll be there with them.

“For the rest of my life I will be devoted to those kids.”

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