From One Mass Shooting Survivor’s Mother to the Parents of Mass Shooting Survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida: An Open Letter About Your New Reality
From Donna Smith, survivor’s mother
It is my solemn duty, at least I feel it is, to tell you what many of you will face as the parent of a survivor of mass shooting in America. I am so very sorry that we are at this point 25 years after a young, angry gunman and former employee entered a Chuck E Cheese pizza parlor in Aurora, CO, and killed four of my 17-year-old son’s co-workers and shot a fifth who survived by playing dead after he was shot in the face. It was December 14, 1993.
It was the day when our lives were shifted in ways that are still unfolding today. Shock is an amazing thing. It insulated me for many hours until I saw my wonderful son being interviewed on the local news, and until I saw my son’s gaunt, gray face and a pleading distance in his beautiful eyes. My child was pleading for reasons why and resting on the edge of emotional collapse. No bullet hit my son, and perhaps no bullet hit your child. But during my most difficult time as a mother, I needed to bring some steadiness to my son. Yet I was so angry and shattered myself that I felt awful for feeling anything but overwhelming gratitude that my son’s life was spared.
The act of the courageous survivor’s mother had begun for me. In looking back, I wish I had sobbed with my son and held his hand through that first awful night afterwards like his younger brother did. I peeked in to check on my sons after they finally went to bed, and for the first time in years, they were sleeping in the same room – the night had not started that way as they each had their own bedrooms. But on this night, my son Daniel was in his bed, and our shooting survivor Russ was on the floor with his pillow right next to Dan’s bed. Though they were both asleep, Dan’s outstretched arm was resting on his brother’s back. He was just there for him in ways I was not.
That day was both my nightmare and my moment of eternal, guilt-ridden gratitude that my child, my son lived. Though mothers of the dead reassured me they were so happy for me that my child was not shot, even that generosity of that shared maternal compassion and love seemed to reinforce my guilt. How could I be upset when these women lost their babies? How could that be true that I was comforting a mother who had learned via a story of the front page of the Denver Post that her daughter, Colleen, had been forced to drop to her knees and beg before the gunman shot her through the top of her head. Colleen’s mother was traumatized by her last words with her daughter – they had a mother-daughter spat before Colleen left for work that day. Now she would never get to hold her again, and no one even had the decency to notify her before the details were published in print. I suppose it was some sort of survivor’s mother’s guilt manifest in my anger and shock. My darling son would never be the same, and I want to prepare you for some of what you may see and feel. Everyone tells you that grief is processed differently by everyone, and I agree. I do want you to be alert to depression and even to suicidal ideation in your survivor and for yourself. It may not hit you like it did me, but I know it will hit.
The quality of this video is grainy and old, but it was recorded just hours after “our” mass shooting by a local television news crew. What devastates me now is seeing the faces of your children looking the same way sometimes. My son, Russell, recorded December 15, 1993. Click Here
The gunfire at my son’s workplace left “our” teenaged murder victims Sylvia, Colleen, and Ben mortally wounded and their manager Marg shot through each ear and lying dead after emptying the safe. My son, Russell, was working that night and punched out just moments before the shooting began. He was scheduled to close that night but traded shifts with the young father, Bobby, who needed the hours and pay. When his former co-worker and former fellow student at Overland High School entered the restaurant alone near closing time it was odd, and my son fixed the sandwich for his friends’ murderer. The animated characters that draw children and families to the Chuck E Cheese brand were still “performing” with circus-like music and giggles and grins when the police arrived on the scene. At the murder trial for Nathan Dunlap many months later, the prosecutor handed Russell his time card to verify when he clocked out. The shooting began just three or four minutes later. The courtroom was silent, and several people turned and looked at me as if to say, “Oh my God.” I couldn’t breathe, and I trembled in my seat.
My son had arrived home shortly after the restaurant closed, and within moments bulletins on the local news and the helicopters overhead signaled to my son that he had failed somehow by not calling out the weirdness of seeing another young man come in to the restaurant 10 minutes before closing on a cold, snowy December night and order a sandwich. My boy told me that he was so “itchy” about the scene that he watched the gunman sitting in a corner booth through the kitchen pass-through window as he built that sandwich. He served it up, as per usual, and then clocked out. His friends, his co-workers, and his manager were busy cleaning and closing the restaurant in their final moments of life. There was some small comfort for me in knowing they did not have longer to be scared. Small comforts are all I could find in the horror.
For the first few days after “our” shootings, everyone was supportive and patient with me and with Russell. Community vigils, a school crisis group attempted, and police asking questions. My son was, after all, one of the only living people who could identify the gunman. But it was nearly Christmas, and the ability to quickly pivot ourselves to those celebrations was painful, ill-advised and caused me more pain. Most of the people in our closest circles wanted to see us recognize how fortunate we had been and buck up. How do you have a Merry Christmas when your grief and your shock is stifled? You don’t, but you smile, you eat fudge and Christmas cookies, you gather around the tree for presents, and you avoid bringing up any “unpleasant topics,” which was what the Chuck E Cheese murders had become in just 11 short days.
This juxtaposition of the world we were quickly forced to embrace was horrible. It still is horrible every single time we hear what you heard on Valentine’s Day in Parkland. Shots fired, multiple fatalities, AR-15s, kids and teachers dead, and many warning signs ignored by law enforcement, school districts, and those around the gunman (they were in our shooter’s case too). The commonality seemed to me to be the rage — the raw anger with which many, if not all, of these young, male shooters acted seemed consistent across the board. I also felt and feel horribly guilty for having some human compassion for the shooter and his family. People hated and hate me for that. While I do not excuse in any way the horrific crimes committed, there is a need to see one another and reach out to one another around the societal, educational, criminal and political arenas to address the rage brewing in so many young men in our culture. If we had some sanity around that set of circumstances, perhaps we could do more. I know the way threats are handled all too often is that when a report comes in to a business, a law enforcement agency, a school district, and others who might be able to act, I see damage control – more accurately image control – take over. Threats are often met with a sort of “call-us-back-when-the-person-actually-does-something.” I get that. Not every threat warrants a SWAT response, but I grow very weary of people only protecting others when they absolutely have to rather than when we need to – before the shooting begins. And, no, vilifying those with mental illness is a terrible thing. Keep in mind that you may well now have mental illness in your survivor or yourself.
Do you worry or wonder if your child will suffer serious on-going psychological pain and a long-term, multi-faceted path to some semblance of their young lives and goals they had before “your” mass shooting? Wonder no more, dear parents. Even as the children, the students and the parents of the dead take and communicate their bravely defiant positions and in doing so are helping heal the immediate traumatic internal struggles, rest assured (please, do rest) that the unpredictability and the deeply disruptive struggles of some level of PTSD will play out. I would find my son both over-reacting and under-reacting to life’s big and small challenges. Of course the intensity changed, but please know that does not mean he or she is “over it” or will ever really be. Would we really want to have raised children who can ignore their own outrage about facing and witnessing such gun-related devastation? No. I found it most helpful to find times and ways to just listen, really listen. They really aren’t and weren’t many ways to reassure our children that their pain will mean enough to their communities, some in their families, their states, some of their peers, or certainly to an NRA-fueled Congress and President. All you can do as a parent to a survivor is survive and help your child survive and along this new path.
You will never again want to be far away from your child when a mass shooting happens. Ever again. Be ready for a call or an email or a Facebook post. Listen. We were sure after Columbine that this gun-love would be vigorously addressed — we were sure after Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, the Pulse, and on and on. Silence is complicity, and we were not silent. But we were ultimately discounted as nuts because my son and I believe in a very tough stance on guns. But immediately after one of the shootings, I would often get a text from Russ that said simply, “Here we go again.”
Be in the position to listen when your child hears about shootings… My son usually runs through a cycle of first a firm denial that he is once again wounded by our society’s brutality or that it bothers him anymore to hear of mass shootings, and that is often followed by reasoning about the need to rid ourselves of guns in general society. He is a University of Chicago educated mathematician, philosopher and artist who cites the stats about lowering probabilities for these gun crimes by ending the access to the tools of trauma —the guns. It’s the math, he tells me, and we all know he is right. But then follows the part I dread but embrace at the same time. Russell works through to the place of sorrow so deep that I want to cradle him and just reassure him that it will all be all right. His weeping still comes unexpectedly sometimes. He eventually rejected his faith altogether as inconsistent with the world he lives in, and we agree to disagree about that.
Russell has done some interviews since the shootings that record over the years how he has tried to process and deal with this. In the wake of each new shooting, someone gets in touch, and he tries to be as honest as possible about what he thinks. Here is one of the NPR pieces done in 2012. As usual, Russell makes the case much better than I.
In an article Russell wrote that is cited in the NPR interview from 2012, almost 20 years after the murders, I see his struggle in swirling and vivid ways. It was titled, Shadows.
Russell has also done an awful lot of processing through his art and philosophy. His self portraits always look tortured by sadness [see cover photo]. He helped stage an amazing art show along with a play called the “Gun Show” and recorded the video below outside his Santa Monica studio space that is, as you can tell, very close to the airport. Listen to his words, as a 41-year-old man — a husband and a wonderful father to two incredible daughters. Listen to the pain he still feels, CLICK HERE.
Your children did something following “your shooting” (our collective new St. Valentine’s Day massacre) that I never thought would happen. Russell says he was heard. Russell knew that for the first time in 25 years, through your children, he was heard. Russell said that for the first time since the Chuck E Cheese murders happened, he saw reason to hope that real change might happen. His life and the lives of his friends demanded that of us then, and it is demanded of us now — together. Just as I know your children will not always be able to sustain the public strength they are exhibiting now and that they will face PTSD and depression and potential mood swings that will make you terrified, I also know that the support for survivors and their families is often too brief, too isolated to those injured and those closest to the dead. That support is needed, of course, and we also need to decide that we should not have to rely on GoFundMe support or charity for the need for help that goes on for many years, in some cases.
Finally, there were and are some reasons I differ with my son on faith. I will close for now by sharing a couple of things that may or may not mirror what others go through.
On December 14th, 1993, as I drove home from work on my usual route hours before the shootings, I was annoyed by many pressures of my work day and also by concerns about dinner and having forgotten to thaw something. The traffic was awful. I was sitting at a traffic signal and stressing myself out, I suddenly felt all the weight on my shoulders lift. It was as if some universal energy had reached into that car and enveloped me with a message of comfort that I could relax, that everything would be OK. I tried to shake it off as being the dilutions of an overworked, overstressed mother of six trying to not go crazy waiting in rush hour traffic. Yet, that palpable feeling of lightness and comfort would not abate. So, I just rested in it until it passed. I would only learn after I got home and spoke to Russell about his work schedule that it was at that exact time that he had switched shifts with the one fellow employee who survived getting shot. Russ was to close the restaurant, but he knew I wasn’t liking him working so late since he had an emergency appendectomy just weeks prior and he was still recovering. But Russ felt strongly that his co-workers had been so helpful to him through his time away, and he accepted the schedule as written until Bobby expressed that he wanted the closing shift since he needed the extra income. They switched shifts, and Russell went home just as the restaurant doors were closing. I choose still to believe that my God was telling me something profound — not a reassurance that I would never face pain but a reassurance that I am loved and cared about beyond my understanding. I have rested in that often.
This time following the Parkland shooting, when Russell witnessed your children rising up and being heard, he uttered words and feelings I never dreamed I would hear. “Finally,” he said, “Finally I have hope that people are listening to these kids, and that something will actually change for the better.” He urged the young people in Parkland to keep pushing forward and not to look back. Indeed. So no matter your path through your grief and anger that you have yet to know, please know that at least one mother of a shooting survivor says, “Thank you so much. My son, my beautiful Russell, has hope, and it was seen in the eyes and heard in the voices of your children.” Hold them tight but don’t smother them either. You obviously have raised them to care, and that will be the challenge for all of us going forward. We have to listen to what these caring young people are saying and support what they are doing and be that soft place to land when the crashes come. Your children were a further affirmation of my understanding of faith – and I will pray for you because I know the road you are starting to take with and for your children, and I am grateful beyond measure for all the parents of mass shooting victims and survivors.
Peace, my dear fellow parents of survivors, and love,
Mother of Russell Foltz-Smith