The Long Reach of Grief After Gun Violence

The Long Reach of Grief After Gun Violence

Olivia Sarriugarte is mourning the death of her friend Mohamed Nejash, who died from gun violence. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Sarriugarte)

Anna Grace Snipe was in her first period class at Santa Fe High School last year when she overheard teachers saying there was a live shooter in a classroom across the school. “I was terrified when I figured out what was going on,” she told YR Media in a Twitter DM. The students around her were crying and “freaking out,” but she managed to stay relatively calm. That day 10 people were fatally shot and 13 wounded by fellow 17-year-old student Dimitrios Pagourtzis.

Afterwards, Snipe obsessed over why the shooter chose that particular classroom and not hers. She wondered, if she’d been in the classroom where the shooting occurred, could she have helped someone? “I was quiet for weeks after because of it,” she said. But eventually she accepted that her guilt wouldn’t do anything, and she was able to let it go.

This feeling, often called “survivor’s guilt,” has been part of the conversation in the media in recent months, especially in reference to the apparent suicides of two student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and a parent of a student who lost her life in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

“A lot of what we see among survivors is that they struggle to understand why they survived when others didn’t, because they made the same decisions everyone else made,” said Dr. Laura Wilson, author of “The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings.” Wilson emphasized that each survivor and their recovery is unique and it’s essential not to generalize any “typical” survivor experience.

Wilson says survivor’s guilt can stem partly from a previously held belief in the just world fallacy. Whether or not they’re aware of it, many people believe on some level that the world is fair — that if they do good things, good things will happen to them. In the aftermath of a shooting, survivors are often left in emotional turmoil. According to Wilson, survivors may struggle to sort out why bad things sometimes happen to good people, or why people die even when they seemingly make the “right” choices.

Bree Butler was a senior at Santa Fe High School during the shooting there last May. Since the shooting, she has had increased anxiety, especially when she hears news of other shootings. Recently she says there was a shooting in a bar near her university. “I freaked out,” she said. “I didn’t leave my room for, like, three or four days.”

Butler is now finishing up her first year of college. She hasn’t told most of her college friends that she is a shooting survivor. “The only reason people would ever know that I was in a shooting,” she said, “is if they ask about my [gun control] activism, like how I got into that.” She doesn’t want them to feel sorry for her, which is how she says people usually react. “I just want people to know that, no, I’m not okay,” she said. “It’s fine. I’m not okay, but everybody’s going through it.”  

Survivor’s guilt can apply to many different types of survivors, not just those of mass tragedy. Olivia Sarriugarte grew up in an area of Seattle with high rates of violent crime. When she was 11 years old, she said she was with her family at a restaurant when a number of shots were fired and a bullet shattered a nearby window. Her family took refuge in their van. When she was young, she remembers the guys on her street regularly carrying guns. In December of 2017, one of Sarriugarte’s close friends, Mohamed Nejash, was shot dead in an apparent gang-related dispute. Sarriugarte said that Nejash had always been a protector in their neighborhood, the glue of the community.

Sarriugarte feels an incredible amount of guilt — that she survived, went to college (which Nejash had wanted to do) and that she turned 22, an age he will never reach. She described a “double trauma” — first the loss of a friend and second that “on top of that no one cared.” She was particularly distraught that a Seattle Times article on his murder was flooded with comments such as “gang bangers gunna bang” and “Another gun off the street. Success story.” Eventually, comments on the article were deleted and closed.

Olivia Sarriugarte got a tattoo in memory of her friend Mohamed Nejash, who was shot dead. MOB had been Nejash’s nickname. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Sarriugarte)

In the year and a half since Nejash’s death, Sarriugarte has struggled to understand why her friend was killed, even though he was a wonderful person. But then she second-guesses her own thoughts. “If he’s too good to die,” she wonders, does that mean that some other people deserve to die? “I’m in this weird no man’s land,” she said, “of, like, I have no idea how the universe works.”

Sarriugarte recently graduated from Pitzer, a private college, where she felt that her classmates couldn’t relate to her experience. “Everyone’s trying to do their schoolwork and graduate,” she said, “and I just keep being, like, ‘Hey, remember my friend got brutally shot and killed? That’s bothering me right now.’” Her friends were always kind when she brought it up, but after a while they stopped asking after her. She was angry that they had a choice to stop thinking about gun violence, while for her, “It’s here and it’s real and these are our peers.”

Wilson said it’s important for survivors to know that their path to recovery may not be linear. “One thing that confuses people,” she said, “is they might start to feel better. They might start to sleep better or they might feel less anxious. They might feel less sad and then all of a sudden, it comes flooding back.” Sometimes these ups and downs can be triggered by anniversaries of a tragedy, birthdays of people lost, or media about other shootings.

Mass shootings and school shootings are becoming more frequent. The 21st century has already seen more deaths from mass shootings than in the entire 20th century, according to a study in the Journal of Family Studies. Survivors are at risk of developing disorders like major depression, generalized anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some survivors find value in talking to other survivors or organizing with them. Several organizations, like The Rebel’s Project and Survivors Empowered, have formed to connect survivors as well as to advocate for gun control.

Through her activism with The Orange Generation, Butler connected with survivors of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. She said she was comforted to meet one woman in particular, a survivor of the Columbine shooting, and that they’ve since become close. It’s nice for Butler to see this woman survive such a high-profile, destructive shooting and go on to lead a normal life. “She had, like, a kid and she lives in California and she has this life — [although] she obviously still struggles with what she went through.”

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