Bound by Grief, Newtown Families Find Strength in Kin of Shooting Victims

Losing a loved one to gun violence thrusts you into "a club that no one wants to be a part of," one Newtown parent said. But they lean on each other like old friends.

By Jon Schuppe
|  Thursday, Dec 12, 2013  |  Updated 5:20 PM EDT
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PHOTOS: Newtown School Shooting

AP Photo/Chris Schneider

Tom Mauser, whose son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine High School in 1999, has become a hub in an expanding social network of Americans who have lost loved ones in mass shootings and chronic gun violence.

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A few weeks after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Tom Mauser got a call at his home in Colorado, asking for his help.

More than 1,800 miles away, the families of 26 murdered children and educators were despairing, unsure what to expect or how to move forward. They needed someone who’d been through it, who understood.

Mauser, whose 15-year-old son, Daniel, was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, considered it an honor to be asked. He frequently spoke in public about Daniel’s death, and had channeled his sorrow into gun-control lobbying. But he wasn’t sure how much comfort he could provide the families of Newtown. The children were so young. The grief remained raw. Mauser doubted many would want to talk.

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He went anyway, remembering how people in similar situations had helped him navigate the early years of his mourning.

In Newtown, Mauser found himself among a group of people from around the country — Tucson, Virginia, Aurora — who’d lost loved ones to gun violence, telling parents of the Sandy Hook victims how he’d made it 13 years. They hardly knew each other, but were now united under a common sense of purpose: to honor the dead, and to help each other live.

“I’ve gotten to know a number of people from different shooting tragedies, and no one knows what I’m going through like they do,” Mauser said. “We instantly have the ability to connect in a way others can’t.”

Mauser is a hub in a widening network of Americans bound by a shared misfortune: all have lost loved ones to mass shootings or chronic gun violence. They come from bucolic suburbs and troubled urban neighborhoods. They are black and white, well-off and poor, young and old. Brought together by victims-rights advocacy, gun-law activism or sheer anguish, they are guiding one another’s quest for healing.

Many of them will meet at a vigil at the Washington National Cathedral Thursday night, two days before the anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012, Newtown attack, to share their stories.

Common ground of loss

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“It’s a kind of club that no one wants to be a part of,” said Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. “You don’t know them personally, but you do. You’ve got that connection.”

Heslin finds comfort in talking about Jesse, but most of the time he knows the people listening can't truly empathize. That changes when he’s at a dinner organized by an advocacy group, or speaking at a press conference, or chatting with a survivor he’s just met.

“You don’t go out intending to meet other members of the club, but you come into contact with them. It’s somewhat of a secure feeling, a comforting feeling, when you’re associating with these people. It’s not awkward at all when you’re together. You have the common ground of your loss.”

Those who form particularly strong bonds keep in touch by phone and email and Facebook, and try to join each other at memorial events and trips to Congress. They seek each other out during bouts of debilitating sadness and slipping faith, when the flashbacks return and when they cannot sleep. They want to know they are not crazy.

“You have these ideas or thoughts running around in your head, and they stay there until you actually say them out loud to somebody,” said Tom Sullivan, father of Alex Sullivan, shot to death on July 20, 2012, in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on his 27th birthday. “That’s what I’m kind of looking to do: say those words out loud so I can move on.”

Balancing grief and hope

Sullivan, a career Aurora Post Office worker, retired immediately after his son’s death. He began attending hearings on local gun-control bills, showed up at all the Aurora memorial events, and accepted an invitation from Newtown Action Alliance to join a group of survivors lobbying lawmakers in Washington D.C. He met parents of kids who’d been shot on the streets of Chicago, in the 2007 Virginia Tech gun attack, at the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. He has also become close with Mauser.

In some ways, those relationships helped him more than the ones he had close to home.

“There’s so much unspoken understanding between us that I don’t have to explain why a certain thing might bother me or why I might be a little agitated by something,” Sullivan said. “They just know.”

As these relationships develop, the more seasoned survivors remind the novices that they will never get over it, but it will get better. The trick, they say, is to find a way to balance grief with hope: find a cause, create a website, keep your family close, make your family bigger, meditate, get professional help.

“It’s nice giving people any kind of road map, because when you go through something so traumatic, you feel lost, like you’re never going to feel normal," said Kim Blair Woodruff, a Columbine survivor who struggled for years before finding peace through Tai Chi. She now teaches the martial art, and among her students are other survivors — including Tom Sullivan’s daughter, Megan. And she is part of a newly formed Columbine group, the Rebels Project, which aims to send members to other towns suffering from gun violence. "That is why I think different communities tend to reach out for each other.”

Linking disparate places

In the year since Newtown, there has been a long, sustained attempt to link survivors of mass shootings — which typically occur in the suburbs — with those in places where gun violence is a constant, everyday concern — mainly inner cities.

Much of this endeavor is driven by gun-control groups — such as the Newtown Action Alliance, which organized the vigil at the National Cathedral — seeking to sway members of Congress. That effort has sparked relationships among people who never thought them possible.

“You can’t help but get attached when you connect with people who are in your shoes. You become family,” said Shundra Robinson, whose son, Deno Wooldridge, was gunned down in Chicago three years ago and who joined Newtown parents in Washington last summer.

Robinson said she is grateful for Newtown for embracing mothers like her, who believe the frequent gun violence in poor, urban neighborhoods doesn’t get enough attention. “For Newtown to include us, it broke the barriers of race and class. They said, 'Although this doesn’t happen on a daily basis here, we now understand, because it hit us hard.'”

Giving, and receiving, help

Carlos Soto considers himself an embodiment of this new dynamic. He is 16, the younger brother of Victoria Soto, a teacher killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. He has thrown himself into the work of representing the Newtown victims, and in doing so has sought advice from survivors in Chicago, who prepared him for handling the approaching anniversary and holidays. He has also struck up a friendship with Colin Goddard, who was injured in the Virginia Tech attack.

Not long ago, Soto said, he got an email from a 12-year-old boy in Chicago whose brother had been shot to death on their front porch. Soto gave him some advice, and they’ve kept in touch. The boy often checks in when he’s having a bad day, and Soto does the same.

One day, Soto hopes to make a career of counseling survivors of gun violence.

“I do feel like I’m able to help people,” Soto said. “But I also need help, too, and I know those people are there for me.”

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