One student asked how Columbine could compare to what Gerda endured during the Holocaust. After a brief moment, she said, "Pain is pain."
Something inside you changes when you experience violence for the first time. Unfamiliar feelings of shock, numbness, and fear shatter your world. When the shock wears off, adrenaline takes over and irrational thoughts can impact your behavior as your mind grapples with the new normal - it's hard to trust anyone. I learned this as a junior at Columbine in 1999. My friend Amber Huntington Wright learned it as a senior at Columbine, hiding under a table in the library where the most lives were taken.
Each time I hear of another shooting, my heart hurts for the innocence that is lost and the unwanted residual grief waiting for survivors. Amber and I both know that the road to recovery is long and you never really 'get over it.' However, we have learned hard won truths that help pull you through. Amber brought these thoughts together in a picture book dedicated to Sandy Hook called, "It Gets Better: A Book of Healing."
No one predicted Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech or Columbine, yet the nation mourned together trying to pick up the pieces. The Columbine shooting far exceeded anyone's worst nightmare and we struggled to process what happened. Good intentioned therapists, friends and family all reached out to help us heal from the emotional scars left after the incident. Despite these efforts, early on, I often felt trapped in a very dark place and didn't know how leave.
Light began illuminating for me when a 75-year-old grandmother visited Littleton in January 2000. Gerda Weissmann Klein didn't know what she would say to such a large group of traumatized teenagers. She was asked to come and willingly accepted the invitation with the hope of helping us overcome the tragedy and build a solid path towards healing. Gerda was apprehensive about re-traumatizing us, but spoke from her heart and shared her story.
A native of Bielsko, Poland, Gerda was 15 when Germany invaded her hometown in 1939. Her brother and parents were killed by the Nazis and she was forced to work in slave labor and concentration camps, before suffering through a 350-mile death march. Of these experiences Gerda said, "winning meant a slice of bread and living another day."
Initially, many students found it hard to relate to Gerda. On the whole, Columbine paled in comparison to the Holocaust. We had one bad day, not years of constant emotional and physical abuse. However, it was difficult reconciling why either tragedy happened. One student voiced this concern asking how Columbine compared to what Gerda endured during the Holocaust. After a brief moment, she said, "Pain is pain."
Gerda's stories of perseverance and eventually being liberated by American forces (Kurt Klein, the soldier who literally opened the door to her freedom became her husband) showed us that good can and must come from tragedy.
"I can never minimize their pain," Klein said in a 2000 interview. "It is a balm on my wounds to think that my own pain has helped someone else. And they have helped me - by their response to my feelings. They have done an incredible good. Then you somehow feel it wasn't totally in vain. I hope each of those young people will do something good, something kind, and that they will become the leaders for hope and reconciliation."
Since Gerda's inspired visit, I've seen Columbine students do a tremendous about of good. Hundreds of volunteers joined me to send comfort quilts to Virginia Tech. Anti-bullying programs like Rachel's Challenge have equipped students and teachers across the country with tools to infuse a school's culture with kindness. When Amber called asking me to help with her book, "It Gets Better," I appreciated the invitation to do something good. I believe it will make a positive impact on the Sandy Hook community.
Like Gerda visited Littleton, Amber will visit Newtown in May. She will meet the families, hear their stories, and offer words of support in a profound way few can replicate. I know Amber will help them like Gerda helped us. When we encounter violence, the healing balm comes as we look beyond ourselves and find someone to serve. This rebuilds trust, opens hearts and helps us all continue moving forward.
As we approach the fourteenth anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, what better way to celebrate than to find someone to serve. There is no timetable for grief, however, we can decide to move forward with a sure knowledge that brighter days are ahead.
"If you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up," Gerda said. "The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars."
You can read Amber's accompanying post here.
Liz Carlston is the author of Surviving Columbine: How Faith Helps Us Heal When Tragedy Strikes. Liz grew up in Littleton, Colo., and currently lives and works in Silicon Valley. Learn more about the book, It Gets Better at www.ResilientHope.org.