HEALTH

Parkland Survivors Struggle With Grief, Even As Their Message Spreads

“You can't move on from something like this; nobody ever can," survivor David Hogg told HuffPost.

She still breaks down now and then — they all do. “There was one day that everybody had a breakdown at 4 p.m. Everything almost stopped on that day,” Emma González told HuffPost in one of the many interviews she’s sat down for since 17 people were gunned down at her school last month.

As an activist, González, 18, is poised and passionate when she speaks about the need for gun control. But sometimes, she’ll crack: “I’ll be like, ‘Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.’”

She went on: “I have my moments that I give myself. I’ve always been pretty in-tune with my emotions, if I can call it that. I know how to handle myself, I know how to hold off on crying, when I need to go to a private place, or I can stop myself from crying if it’s really too loud.”

That’s why González embroiders — it keeps her hands busy and her mind clear. She has a jacket that she is wearing on Saturday, when teen survivors and activists descend on Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives.

“I’ve been embroidering a lot of extra patches [for it],” she said. “If I can focus on what my hands are doing, rather than answering texts for once, then I can get something done positively on myself.”

The march is the culmination of weeks of activism by Never Again, the organization that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors started. The teenagers have built a national movement out of their grief, but that doesn’t mean they’ve fully processed what happened at their school in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.  

There are moments they’re transported back to the shooting — after hearing a song lyric that reminds them of a friend, or the chopping sound of a passing helicopter.

I don’t like to say that we can process this, because that implies that we’re ever gonna be finished ... You can’t move on from something like this; nobody ever can. This will forever be in my mind.” David Hogg, Parkland shooting survivor

For González, it’s the screams. It’s why she’s opted out of going to Universal Studios theme parks with her fellow seniors for Grad Bash.

“I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait outside all day in the hot sun, which is exactly what I did on Feb. 14. I don’t want to hear people screaming the whole time. Even if they’re happy screams, it’s screaming. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be in a mass of people, especially when there’s gonna be groups of people who are running places.”

David Hogg, 17, is also haunted by the shooting.

“I think we all process grief differently,” he told HuffPost. “I know that I definitely have at least a small amount of PTSD. I think we all do from it. I will never hear the chop of a helicopter the same again, because I can still hear it from that day. The constant thud of their blades slicing through the air and us hearing it in our classrooms and not knowing whether or not we were gonna die the next instant.”

“I don’t like to say that we can process this, because that implies that we’re ever gonna be finished, we’re gonna be done with this,” he added. “You can’t move on from something like this; nobody ever can. This will forever be in my mind.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Hogg said, he’s found solace in Frank Ocean’s music. The hip-hop artist, known for tackling mental health in his lyrics, was a favorite of 17-year-old Parkland victim Joaquin Oliver.

“Listening to that, as Joaquin’s favorite artist, has been really impactful,” Hogg said. “There’s one song on his ‘Blonde’ album where 17 seconds in he says, ‘Got your Meadow,’ and that reminds me of Meadow Pollack and so many of the other victims that were there.”

“I think the broken-heartedness that Frank sings some of his songs with, is really a shout-out to America and the broken state that we’re in,” he continued. “We’re broken-hearted, we feel hopeless, we feel lost. He found hope. I think we can, too.”    

David Hogg and Emma González speak with HuffPost ahead of March for Our Lives.
David Hogg and Emma González speak with HuffPost ahead of March for Our Lives.

A Generation Marked By Gun Violence

González was seven years old when a senior at Virginia Tech University opened fire on his classmates. She was 13 when nearly two dozen children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And she was 16 when a gunman shot and killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

Sitting on a stool at HuffPost’s studio, the teen’s leg bounced frantically as she introduced herself to the camera. She wore a T-shirt that reads ”#MSDStrong,” and among a stack of colorful bands on her wrist was a white commemorative bracelet for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Even before Parkland, the June 2016 mass shooting at the gay nightclub’s Latin Night felt “very close to home” for González, the bisexual daughter of a Cuban father.

“Watching Pulse happen and the aftermath was a very angry time for me,” González told HuffPost. “They were calling it a terrorist attack, and it might have been, but also, it was a gay nightclub. That’s a very specific demographic. It was full of Hispanic[s] and people of color.”

For Hogg, it was the 20 children and six adults killed in Connecticut in December 2012 that stood out among the wave of gun violence he’d witnessed as a child ― that, and an incident at the Los Angeles airport that directly affected his family.

“I was in middle school during the time of Sandy Hook, that was unimaginable, even as an 11-year-old,” Hogg said. “Then I was in eighth grade, and one day I was in school and I get a call from my mom, and she said there was just a shooting at LAX, where my dad was an FBI agent at the time. I didn’t know if he was involved, I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.”

We’ve kind of been lulled into submission. It’s like learned helplessness ... If we’re expecting it, then it’s normal. It shouldn’t be normal. It should never have been normal. Emma González, Parkland shooting survivor

“That’s really when this became real for me,” Hogg continued. He said he didn’t become politically engaged at the time “because I, like the rest of America, felt helpless. I think that’s a problem that we need to face. We can’t feel helpless any longer, because … you can and you will be affected by one of these mass shootings if we don’t put an end to them now.”

“We’ve kind of been lulled into submission,” González said of the amount of gun violence her generation has witnessed. “It’s like learned helplessness. We see danger around every corner, so we know to expect it, we know not to fight against it. If we’re expecting it, then it’s normal. It shouldn’t be normal. It should never have been normal.”

“These politicians don’t care what race you are, they don’t care what age you are, so long as they’re able to make money and stay in power,” Hogg added. “Now we have to stand up and take action against them, because they aren’t gonna fight for our lives, so we have to.”

It’s a conviction that’s changed their lives in a big way. While most high school seniors their age would be preparing for spring break, graduation and their freshman year of college, González and Hogg find themselves in the spotlight of a national movement that pits them against the most powerful gun rights organization in the country, the National Rifle Association.

Emma González gets emotional during her speech at a rally for gun control three days after the shooting
Emma González gets emotional during her speech at a rally for gun control three days after the shooting at her school.

“Before this, my biggest concern was going to IKEA to get desk supplies for a college room,” González, who will be attending New College of Florida with a friend, told HuffPost. “Then this happened. I have never felt more weighed down in my entire life with the stuff that we have to do.”

“It’s a good weight,” she adds. “Because I know that if it wasn’t us, it would never get done. We have to sacrifice whatever we can, as a movement, and as the people who are pushing forward this movement, for the sake of the cause.”

It’s a sentiment that Hogg shares, even after recently receiving rejection letters from two dream schools, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

“For me, this has been really hard,” he said. “I couldn’t let [those rejections] stop me. I have to keep going for these children’s lives. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities down the road, but sadly, I can’t be a kid because these politicians can’t be adults.”

I know that if it wasn’t us, it would never get done. We have to sacrifice whatever we can, as a movement, and as the people who are pushing forward this movement, for the sake of the cause. Emma González

Both Hogg and González are confident their generation has what it takes to unite the country on the deeply divisive issue of gun control. In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, the student survivors have already pushed the Florida legislature to pass gun-related reforms that stipulate a three-day waiting period on gun sales and raise the age requirement for all firearm sales to 21. The win was bittersweet, however, since the law will also allow county sheriffs’ offices to arm select school staff members ― something Parkland survivors have spoken out against.

The teens have also inspired thousands of students to participate in a National School Walk Out on the one-month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

González said she hopes the turnout for the walkout is “just a fraction of what we’re going to see on the 24th.” In fact, she wants to replicate what the Women’s March did in 2017. “I wanna see the pink hats from space all over again. I want it to be visible from space.”

“We’ve kind of realized that the learned helplessness is coming to an end,” she added. “There are no consequences for us to speak our mind. The country was built for us to share our opinions and to vote our conscience and to get our opinions and decisions heard. So, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

David Hogg and other students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School walk out of class on March 14, 2018 to honor the memo
David Hogg and other students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School walk out of class on March 14, 2018 to honor the memories of 17 classmates and teachers killed during a mass shooting at the school.

An Inclusive Movement

Hogg and González are mindful that their experience is something many other people across the country witness far more frequently.

With the intention of making the movement inclusive, survivors from the Parkland shooting have been meeting with students from other cities. Recently, González said, she met up with black and Latino students in Chicago to discuss gun violence.

“We were affected by gun violence once. These people are being affected by gun violence every second of the day. Multiple times in a day, some days.” González told HuffPost. Someone told her that “they have known 50 people who have been shot and 30 of whom were killed by gun violence in their entire lifetime. One of the Chicago kids, Alex King, said the only time he ever felt safe in his entire life was the couple of hours that he spent in Parkland, Florida.”

“Those are the people who need their voices heard the most.”

Hogg partially blames the media for not covering the voices of people of color when discussing gun violence, a sentiment he echoed during a live Twitter Q&A on Monday.

“It is absolutely fucked up that if a black child is shot in a poor community, it is covered for one day by the media,” he said. “But if it’s a white kid that’s shot in Parkland, it’s covered for years.” And he said the public is culpable, too. Americans have “become complacent” about racial bias.

In Chicago, González said, she saw the importance of securing gun reform on a federal level, since the majority of firearms used for crime there come from outside the state.

“You can implement as many state laws as you want, but if those guns can cross state lines from, say, a state where there’s way more lax gun laws because of the lobbying of the NRA, those laws don’t matter,” Hogg chimed in. “They really don’t.”

It is absolutely fucked up that if a black child is shot in a poor community, it is covered for one day by the media. But if it’s a white kid that’s shot in Parkland, it’s covered for years. David Hogg

As gun rights advocates seek to arm teachers as a response to school shootings, Hogg said that money could be better used to improve education for students of color and hiring a more diverse array of teachers.

“As Emma said on ‘60 Minutes’ the other day, [the school] didn’t have enough paper for students for two weeks, but now we have $400 million dollars for guns?” he said. “What about taking all this money that we’re talking about …and invest[ing] it in public education so that these students are able to stay in school longer?”

On Saturday, thousands of teens are expected to take to the streets to do what many adults have failed to do: End gun violence. The students may currently be in the spotlight, but Hogg said that hardly absolves the rest of the country from taking a stand.

“I don’t think we feel that we’ve been failed by the generation before us; I think we know we’ve been failed by them,” Hogg said. But, he added, “they can take action and fix the failure that they’ve created. They can work toward fixing this situation. We need them now, more than ever.”

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