After A Mass Shooting, Families Feel 'A Pain That Will Never Go Away'

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 8:16 am

Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, there is a flurry of concentration on those who died, the alleged or confessed perpetrator, and the sobered, devastated town that will be forever changed.

Then at some point, the press caravan moves on — from Sutherland Springs, from Orlando, from Las Vegas. And within weeks, or sometimes just days, another mass shooting is being reported.

The public attention moves on, but those affected families don't.

More families joined the ranks of the grieving this past week, when five people were killed in Rancho Tehama Reserve, Calif.

"It is a pain that will never go away," Tom Mauser says.

He's been living with it for more than 18 years. His 15-year-old son Daniel was killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

"My son Daniel was a very gentle, soft-spoken kid," Mauser says. "He was a Boy Scout, piano player, loved to play video games, straight-A student."

Daniel was shy, but faced his fears head-on, his father says.

"He chose to join the debate team at Columbine, where he had to get up in front of other people. So I really admire him for that," Mauser told NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.

More than a decade later, Jane Dougherty's life would change in the same way.

Dougherty's sister, Mary Sherlach, was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was gunned down in the school lobby on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012.

"Mary was my older sister," Dougherty tells NPR. "We called her little mother, because she would take charge of the five of us — even my older brothers. So, she lived her life that way. And she died that way. Taking charge, at Sandy Hook."

For most, seeing the news about another mass shooting is a sobering and sad facet of an otherwise normal day.

But for those who've had loved ones die at the hands of gunmen, it cuts much deeper.

"It rips the scab off, every time," Dougherty says. "There's less and less time to heal between them. And for me, I cannot turn away from the news. I think because I think of every victim as Mary. And I will spend the day watching the horror. And I'm physically ill, I think I end up internalizing everything, and eventually I crash. And it happens over and over and over again on mass shooting days, that I call my lost days."

"It's the same for me," Mauser says. "As soon as I know that something has happened, it's: OK, this is going to be a very different day, this is not going to be a productive day." He thinks of what those parents are going through and the long journey ahead of them.

The two describe a lifetime carrying a burden.

"For me, I feel like it never ends," Dougherty says. "It's an ongoing living situation. Because there's one [shooting] after another. I feel like I have just figured out how to live with it. You have no other choice. It's kind of a weight you kind of drag around in your life."

Mauser feels the same way — a weight he bears, forever. "It is a pain that will never go away. It will ease up. You'll learn to deal with it over time. But yes, that is something you will carry with you for the rest of your life. And it will become, unfortunately, an identifier of your life."

For those families who are preparing for their first holiday season without everyone at the table, they have some advice.

"It does get better, but it's always there," Dougherty says. She says becoming an activist for something she believes in — stronger gun control laws — has been "therapeutic."

Be prepared for insensitive comments, Mauser says. Some people just don't know what to say to you.

And most of all, Mauser says, you have to learn to not feel guilty for going on with your life, when the time comes.

"You have to think: What would your loved one want for you? And realize they would not want you to be stuck in perpetual grief. They would want you to go on with your life, so you need to honor that — and do the best you can to live a happy life even though it is without them."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Every time there's a mass shooting in the United States - and that phrase alone is remarkable - there's a flurry of concentration on those who died, the alleged or confessed perpetrator and the sober, devastated town that will be forever changed. Then at some point, the press caravan moves on - from Sutherland Springs, Orlando, Las Vegas. And within weeks - sometimes just days - another mass shooting must be reported. This week five people were killed and nine were wounded in Rancho Tehama Reserve, Calif.

But what's life like for family members who are left behind after mass killings - after the memorials, the funerals and the vows to never forget? We're joined now by two people who share tragedies more than a decade apart. Jane Dougherty's sister, Mary Sherlach, was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was gunned down in the school lobby on the morning of December 14, 2012.

Jane Dougherty thanks very much for being with us.

JANE DOUGHERTY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And Tom Mauser's 15-year-old son Daniel was one of 12 people who were killed in the mass shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

Mr. Mauser, thank you very much for being with us.

TOM MAUSER: You're welcome.

SIMON: The first question to both of you - Jane, tell us something about your sister.

DOUGHERTY: Mary was my older sister. We called her Little Mother because she would take charge of the five of us - even my older brothers. So she lived her life that way. And she died that way - taking charge.

SIMON: Yeah.

DOUGHERTY: At Sandy Hook.

SIMON: Tom Mauser, what kind of young man was your son Daniel?

MAUSER: My son Daniel was a very gentle, soft-spoken kid. He was a Boy Scout, piano player, loved to play video games, straight-A student. What I most admired about Daniel was that he was someone who took on his weaknesses. He was very, very shy - the last person you'd expect to stand up and speak in front of other students. He chose to join the debate team at Columbine, where he had to get up in front of other people. So I really admire him for that.

SIMON: And if I can ask you both - what's it like when, it seems, every few weeks - if not every few days - you hear about another mass shooting? And Jane, if you could talk maybe.

DOUGHERTY: Oh, it's - I think of it as it rips the scab off every time. And, you know, there's less and less time to heal between them. And for me, I cannot turn away from the news - I think because I think of every victim as Mary. And I will spend the day watching the horror. And I'm physically ill. I think I end up internalizing everything. And eventually, I crash. And it happens, you know, over and over and over again on mass shooting days that I call my lost days.

SIMON: My gosh. And Tom?

MAUSER: It's the same for me. As soon as I know that something has happened, it's oh, OK. This is going to be a very different day. This is not going to be a productive day. Fortunately, not as much - you know, I became a very public person after the tragedy. So especially in those first few years, it also meant getting a number of media calls. And even though I don't get many of those calls anymore, I still feel that pain on those days thinking of what those parents, what those family members are going through - knowing that that's what I went through. And it's especially bad for me, of course, when it's a school shooting - so much worse.

SIMON: As it apparently was in Northern California this week, for example.

Are the worst days after the press has left and the memorials are over and the candlelight vigils have stopped?

DOUGHERTY: For me, I feel like it never ends. It's an ongoing living situation because there's one after another. I feel like I have just figured out how to live with it. You have no other choice. It's kind of a weight you kind of drag around in your life. And in the beginning, I was obsessed with doing something. I'm a doer. I promised my sister when I was standing at her funeral mass - the horror of it, you know, in that moment hit me - and I said to Mary, you know, I don't know what I will do, but I will do something, I promise you. And so, I live that.

SIMON: I'm struck by your phrase, it's a weight you can never put down. Is that how it feels on your shoulders, too, Tom?

MAUSER: It does. It really does. You find out early on - especially in speaking with other people who've lost loved ones like this - it is a pain that will never go away. It will ease up. You'll learn to deal with it over time. But yes, that is something you will carry with you for the rest of your life. And it will become, unfortunately, an identifier of your life.

SIMON: Yeah.

Tom, if I may - I'm told you're wearing what I'll refer to as tribute footwear today.

MAUSER: Yes. On days like this, I feel like I need the strength from my son's shoes. I discovered a number of weeks after the tragedy at Columbine - as we were clearing out some of his personal effects, my wife came upon a pair of shoes. And I said, whoa - what size shoe did Daniel wear? I didn't know that. She said, 10 1/2. And I said, oh, my God. That's my shoe size.

So that - for me, the symbolism was great. So as I became an advocate for stronger gun laws, I would start wearing his shoes to the various events that I went to. And then five years after Columbine, they gave the personal effects. They offered the personal effects of our loved ones after five years. And I said, no, I don't want his clothes. But do you have his shoes? So I have the shoes that he was wearing that day, on April 20. And I only wear them on days like this and when I speak because to me they - I want them to last a long time so I can hand them on down to my children and grandchildren. But to me, they give me inspiration.

SIMON: And forgive me this. But we have scores of American families who've suffered losses like yours - although I realize every loss is different - But losses like yours. This holiday season we're going into - Can I ask you both, what have you - there's one or two lessons you'd like to give them that you've learned over these years. Is there anything that occurs to you?

DOUGHERTY: I guess the lesson is it does get better, but it's always there. And I guess it's what you decide to do with your trauma or your loss. And for me, it was getting out and doing something, becoming an activist. I found it incredibly therapeutic and rewarding because I was doing something purposeful to save lives and to honor my sister.

SIMON: And Tom Mauser?

MAUSER: I would agree with what Jane said. I would add one lesson - get used to the fact that some people may say some things that are not terribly healing or are insensitive. Some people just don't know what to say to you. And you just have to kind of get over that and realize - and you have to forgive them.

As tough as it is, you know, you should grieve for your loved one. You can cry for your loved one. But still go back - especially as time goes on - to realizing that you have to think - what would your loved one want for you? - and realize they would not want you to be stuck in perpetual grief. They would want you to go on with your life. So you need to honor that and do the best you can to live a happy life, even though it is without them - and not feel guilty about it.

SIMON: Jane Dougherty and Tom Mauser, speaking from the studios of Colorado Public Radio.

Can't thank you enough. Thank you very much.

MAUSER: You're welcome.

DOUGHERTY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.