After the Shooting is Over: The Long Healing Road

by Jennifer Bowman - The sound of gunfire is only the beginning of the tragedy that surrounds a school shooting. Weeks, months and years later survivors, family, friends, local residents and the nation still deal with the reverberating impact of the bullets.

On January 22 Canada experienced its worst school shooting in 26 years. Two were killed, seven injured, and two more found dead in a nearby home, leaving a small northern community in Saskatchewan to grieve. In the immediate aftermath the school was closed, additional counselling was offered for those grieving in the community and a variety of activities were coordinated to keep students busy while there were no classes.

Initially there was talk of tearing down the school, but according to records from parent and student meetings following the attack, that soon changed as students voiced their desire that the school remain due to the many positive memories associated with it prior to the shootings. Teachers returned to school on Monday, February 22 (one month after the shooting) and students were expected to return four days later. Students expressed mixed feelings as their time to return drew closer; some voiced their thankfulness for increased security implemented at the school, others relived the horror of the day of the shooting.

The immediate disruptions are only the beginning of the long road of healing for the community, a road too many have travelled before them.

One of those incidents was known as “The Montreal Massacre.” On December 6, 1989  a male shooter killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in an act of violence that was apparently gender-related. One woman who miraculously survived four bullet wounds (including one to her forehead) now has a job and family and occasionally returns to visit the school. Twenty-five years after the event, she finds the sound of a pot lid crashing on the floor brings back the sound of the bullets and the anger.

School shootings entered mainstream consciousness in the U.S. almost a decade after the Montreal shootings when on April 20, 1999 two high school seniors at Columbine High School went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 and wounding 24. Sue Klebold, mother of one of the shooters, published a memoir on February 15 of this year. The book is the story of her painful journey through the valley of grief and blame, years of searching for meaning, searching to understand her son’s actions and the repercussions she faces as the mother of a murderer.

Eight days after the Columbine shooting, Canada faced another violent tragedy. A 14-year-old student entered a school in Taber, Alberta with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, killing one and injuring another.

Numerous news articles written years after various school shootings share the permanent scars these events leave on people. The harrowing experiences wrap their tendrils around lives, embedding memories their victims, families and communities would rather not recall, haunting their lives in ways they wish to escape.

But humans are resilient, and as with many chilling stories, there are some outcomes that have helped shape the world in a different way.

Following the Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, a fourth-year engineering student at the school started a petition calling for stricter gun laws in Canada. The petition collected 500,000 signatures. Bill C-17 was passed in December 1991, introducing increased penalties for firearm-related crimes, requiring a more extensive background check for those purchasing guns and mandatory safety training (among other requirements).

The effects of that shooting also rippled internationally. In  November 1991, in response to the Polytechnique shooting, numerous male residents of London Ontario started the White Ribbon Campaign, encouraging men to take a pledge not to participate in or stand in silence regarding violence against women. Today more than 60 countries are involved.

After the Columbine tragedy, Sue Klebold and her husband wrote to survivors of the shooting, reaching out from their own sorrow to help others in pain. In her book, Klebold again reaches out to family members of the victims of her son and his accomplice, offering to meet with any who would find it helpful.

On February 11, days before the book was published, one woman paralyzed by the Columbine shooters responded to the Klebolds on Facebook with her own letter of support for them, sharing her struggle of dealing with her mother’s suicide six months after the shooting.

In the aftermath of the Taber shooting, Kevin Cameron, now President of the International Center for Threat Assessment, led a crisis response team to help the school and community through the initial impact of the trauma. This morphed into a provincial project; Cameron has since played a key role nationally and internationally in helping schools prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. He was scheduled to speak with parents of La Loche Community School students on Monday, February 22.

Though at the time it might seem impossible that any good could come of these senseless acts of violence, through the darkness of pain a faint rainbow may gradually begin to appear. It is not always evident to the people immediately affected, but it can be seen and felt by those around them. It comes with reaching out and comforting others who are going through similar grief (Galatians 6:2), creating positive change in lives and societies. Jesus Himself set the example in His lifetime, as recorded in numerous gospel accounts (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 1:40-41; 6:34, etc.). As His disciples we must follow His example.

The residents in La Loche have a long difficult road to travel, but those who have gone before them are reaching back to help them navigate the way and help them on the path to healing.

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