Survivor’s Guilt

I am doing a bit of light Summer reading.…(please read that with intense sarcasm.)  If talk of mass shootings is triggering for you…..please skip today’s post.

They Call Me “Mr. De”  is the book written by Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School.  This high school was one of the first mass shootings after mass media went to the internet.  Immediate, inaccurate reports abounded.  Reading the Wikipedea information assured me that the Internet is still spreading misinformation.  So I believe strongly in going to the source and I believe Mr. De is considered one of the best sources.  He talks about the frustration of the policy at that time to not enter buildings with ongoing shooting happening.  Shootings happened in the library because the bombs planted there failed to detonate and the two boys went there to find out why not. This incident became the turning point in how security is treated at schools across the country.  I work in a high school and I am very aware of the tightening security and to schools vulnerability to attacks. Mr. De subtitle for his book is “The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience, and Recovery.”  I listened to his interview on Team Never Quit (Thanks Judy for the correction) and I wanted to know more from his perspective.

Biggest things I learned so far….the boys were not specifically targeted and the school had the same policies of no bullying.  The so called hit list, none of the students on the list were shot.  Mr. De actually listened to the tapes made by the boys; those tapes were filled with hatred towards everyone.  Their intent was to explode bombs in the library above the cafeteria to maximize damage by collapsing the library to kill students at lunch.  The bombs did not detonate so they had gone in to investigate shooting people as they went in.  The impact was massive…the crime cruel and evil.  But the story doesn’t end that day.  Mr. De’s story is after Columbine’s mass murders.

The teacher, Dave Sanders, was Mr. De’s personal friend.  Dave and Mr. De were both running towards the sound of shooting.  Dave went onward while Mr. De stopped a PE class that was unaware of what was happening from heading in that direction too.  Mr. De helped all of those students escape and then was kept from going back into the building by the police and the current policy to not enter where shooting was occurring.  He learned later of his friend’s death and he felt so guilty because he felt it should have been him since the boys shot up his office and were intent on killing him too.  Fortunately, Mr. De did not listen to the advice to not get counseling.  Someone told him that if he sought counseling he would be considered weak.  He sought counseling, he cried openly, and encouraged all of this staff, students and parents to seek counseling too.

I am going to quote a paragraph from his book page 95:

I had a few people tell me, “I talked to someone, and it didn’t help.”  My answer to them was, “You need to find the right person.”  I have also had people tell me, “I don’t need anyone.  I have friends, and I talk to them.”  They often said they also had their spouse or significant other and their parents.  But my response was, “If you break your arm, are you gong to that friend, spouse, significant other or parent and have them put pins in it or a cast on it?”  There are times you need to talk to someone with the professional training to help you work through your thoughts and emotional wounds.  When I travel, I tend to reflect when the flight attendants say something along the lines of, “If the plane loses cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down.  Put the mask on yourself before you help someone else.”  This is the message I share:  You cannot help someone else until you help yourself.

One of the things he shared needing help with was the burden of guilt that his friend died and not him.  This is what I am going to address.  Early on in my counseling I was very aware of the heavy burden of guilt I felt.  My counselor tried to reassure me that the events in my life caused by the pedophile were not my fault.  I assured him I knew that.  So why did I feel this boulder of guilt on my shoulders.  After many conversations in counseling, the question finally came, “Why did I live, when so many others died?”  Whenever I take too lightly the events of my life I have the death count of those that I know of, 3 murders and 7 suicides.  Why was I let go and allowed to live?  Further conversations dug up the horrible lie I was taught that I deserved to die.  This was reinforced at home by my mother’s hatred towards me.  She didn’t want me dead, she wanted me to un-exists.  She truly wished I was never born.  My earliest memories are attempts on my life.  But I lived.  I felt so guilty that I lived when others did not.

Mr. De talked about this same type of guilt.  He received counsel from his Priest that he was spared for a reason…..let that reason make a difference.  Mr. De went on to make the healing of Columbine students and staff his life work.  He finally retired after the last preschooler affected by this mass murder graduated from high school.  Now he continues to travel and talk to school districts across the country about creating an environment of acceptance and safety in schools.  He took his heavy burden and used it to fuel his desire to help others heal.  His solution was similar to mine.  The heavy guilt I feel about surviving fuels my desire to write my blogs and help others to heal.  I don’t know all the reasons I was allowed to live but I know what I can do make a difference for others and tell as many people that will listen if trauma happened get counseling.  If you don’t like your life, get a life coach to teach you differently.  If you are burdened with guilt from the actions of others, learn to forgive yourself for not stopping them.

I am about half way through his book.  I am glad I bought but it is not light reading.  I cried as he recounted that terrible day and the frustrations he felt, the grief he felt, the terribleness of this event.  I’ll be writing a couple of more post because his thoughts on recovery I believe valuable to anyone recovering from trauma.  The cause of the trauma may be different but the steps to recovery are similar.


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