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Sarah Tomlinson

Survivor Guilt

By Sarah Tomlinson | April 24, 2015 |

Year’s later the echo of a school shooting lives on.

For me, December 14th will always be the day my college classmate, Wayne Lo, purchased an SKS semi-automatic assault rifle and rampaged across the campus of Simon’s Rock, the early college we attended. By the time he surrendered to police, he’d killed a professor, Nacunan Saez, and my 18-year-old friend, Galen Gibson, and wounded a security guard and three students.

Twenty years later, the anniversary dawned achy and raw.

Two decades was a long time, but the date still felt haunted.

The festive Christmas decorations in the store windows of the Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn where I was living seemed too sparkly and cheerful.

That morning, I was making the two-and-a-half hour drive from Brooklyn to Simon’s Rock, with two old friends, to speak at a memorial. As I stared at the flat pewter sky, my nerves were pinched and taut. I hadn’t slept much, and I felt like I’d been up all night studying for a big exam I knew I was going to fail.

We’d been listening to a mix I’d made for the drive, and when that ended, the radio became background noise. Until the news: there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, Connecticut. My friends and I looked at each other: How could there have been a shooting today? This was the day of our shooting. And then, the awful comprehension: even though, at the time of our school shooting, it had seemed like the world we knew was ending, the world had gone on, and it was a world where school shootings still happened.

As the specifics of Sandy Hook were reported, I was profoundly humbled by the sheer number of victims and how young the kids were. I felt slightly embarrassed, given the enormity of their tragedy, how small ours seemed by comparison. And then, I felt guilty for diminishing those we’d lost, as if their lives didn’t matter as much. Finally, I tried to stop thinking altogether.

It’s often the instinct of survivors to downplay their distress because of how lucky they know they are to be alive. After some time has passed, they also want to avoid upsetting anyone with their lingering grief, because they can sense how uncomfortable it makes others. And yet, in the decades since our shooting, I’d continued to carry an echo of the trauma within me. It resurfaced during a movie’s gun battle, a violent news report, or a surprise sighting of a young man with the same frizzy curls worn by Galen at the time he was murdered. I had finally accepted that this heightened emotionality would be a part of me forever, and even if the sensation was uncomfortable, it seemed preferable to forgetting.

It was a relief to reach campus for the memorial gathering and be among those who could really, truly understand how I felt. But the night contained sudden landmines: without telling anyone, a groundskeeper had lovingly preserved the shrine we’d made for Galen in the space where he’d been shot outside the library, and seeing the cigarettes, and CDs, and Taco Bell hot sauce packages we’d left for him brought me back to the night of his death with fresh immediacy.

I struggled through my prepared remarks before a few dozen professors and former students in our school’s chapel, the room muted with low light. Together, we shared our stories of the shooting and our grief. We also shared tears and our weary, ever-present search for answers — not to the literal how or why, which we’d all understood years ago would never be resolved, but to the philosophical and moral questions that remained: how and why could one of our own do something like this to the people he lived among? How had we allowed this to happen? Or was that an inflated sense of our own influence in the wake of being shown just how powerless we really were? How could we possibly find any good among the shock of violence and the tendrils of damage it weaves through an entire lifetime?

I was struck by how, two decades later, I’d been drawn back to the scene of the original trauma, to memorialize, to try to heal. And yet, how little progress had been made, in my own struggle to place this event amid the larger scope of my life. And how little progress had been made as a culture, that such violence could happen again — even worse this time — on the same day two decades later.

Galen’s father, Greg Gibson, wrote eloquently for The New York Times about having just returned from laying flowers on Galen’s grave, as he and his wife do every December 14th, when they learned of the events at Sandy Hook. He described how his heart went out to the parents embarking on a path he, too, had been forced to endure, and his deep awareness of how little he or anyone could do to make up for the impossible grief of losing a child, especially to violence.

I’d published an essay about the shooting the previous summer, and it had prompted Greg to email me. As soon as I saw his name in my inbox, I started to weep.

That’s how profoundly guilty I felt for being alive when his son was not.

How incredible, then, that he later had the grace to express sympathy for my classmates and me; that we had not only had to experience this trauma, but also, in a way, make it okay for the adults in our lives. Even though, in a profound sense, having been schooled in the violence of the world at such a young age, we would never truly be okay again. As Greg wrote to me: “Pretty amazing stuff, isn’t it? The way that single act of gun violence ripples outward. So Wayne’s stupid crimes affect hundreds of people, if not thousands. And multiply that by 30,000 per year…”

It was awful to comprehend. And yet, in his note, I found the only good I’ve ever extracted from the horror — how grief grows those who experience it, along with their lingering guilt at finding themselves alive when others are not. And how perhaps the benevolence that growth releases into the world can be equal to — maybe, even greater than — the original violence that caused the grief.

One can only hope.