Public pain and mourning
Tomorrow night will be commencement night at Virginia Tech University, less than a month since last month's massacare. All the students who died are being degrees by the university as part of the evening's ceremony. Some of the families plan to be there, some not.
I've been through the grief process after losing a child, but not in a way near what these families are experiencing. For their children's deaths happened in a very public way. The wife and I sent a mass card to Mary Karen Read's family and as I'm finding out many others are showing ourpourings of sympathy. If I were the families, I don't know if this would be of comfort or not. Bottom line- I don't know what to say, but suggest you read the USA Today article below and say a prayer for all these families.
Linked to- Blue Star, Jo, Third World County,
Bryan Cloyd had misgivings when he got a letter inviting his family to this weekend's graduation ceremonies at Virginia Tech. His daughter Austin, 18, just a freshman, would be awarded her degree — posthumously.
The decision facing Cloyd, a Virginia Tech accounting professor, also confronts other families of students killed April 16 in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history: Do they attend graduation ceremonies that begin Friday, and experience a potentially painful reminder of all that was lost? And are they ready to spend time with other families who share their indescribable grief?
Cloyd's first reaction: "I'm not sure we're ready for that. We cry every day about one victim. Frankly, we're a little scared to immerse ourselves in the grief of 31 others."
His family, though, reconsidered. They've decided to march proudly Friday night into Lane Stadium with graduates from the Honors Program, behind a group of bagpipe players — "something that Austin was excited about doing. So we wanted to do that, too."
To attend commencement or stay home — that has become the latest in a series of emotionally wrenching decisions facing 32 grieving families, including those of five faculty members killed during the shooting rampage by student Seung Hui Cho.
As thousands of parents are descending on Blacksburg, Va., for the ceremonies, the victims' families, including 16 interviewed by USA TODAY, are caught between two worlds. They are torn between dwelling on what happened that day — when two students were killed at West Ambler Johnston dormitory and 30 other people were gunned down at Norris Hall two hours later — and moving on with their lives.
The families say they're going through an intensely private grief while fielding calls, cards and computer messages from thousands of people around the world.
They search for forgiveness but also are determined to make sure that a state review panel fully investigates how the shootings might have been prevented, including questions about whether more should have been done to treat Cho for mental illness.
Many of the families say they're eager to establish ties with other victims' families, and yet wary of facing the emotions such bonding could bring.
University officials plan a mostly upbeat ceremony at the football stadium Friday night, but one portion will be devoted to the 32 victims. Their photos will be flashed on a giant screen as the school's alma mater is played.
The university's president and provost will leave the stage to greet the families, who will be given class rings. There will be a special page on the victims in the commencement program.
The school has assigned a staff member to each family for the weekend, has invited them to dinner Friday and brunch Saturday, and has offered to pay travel costs for relatives from as far as Egypt, India and Indonesia.
Even so, some say they can't go back to Blacksburg less than four weeks after racing there in a panic to learn whether their loved ones were among the victims.
"To make that drive down there is just too much. It's too soon," says Tracy Littlejohn, whose cousin Erin Peterson, 18, of Centreville, Va., was among the victims.
The parents and young wife of doctoral candidate Waleed Mohammed Shaalan, 32, "are too sad to come" from Egypt, says Hesham Rakha, one of Shaalan's graduate school professors.
Slain freshman Henry Lee's family won't come from nearby Roanoke even though his sister, Chi, a senior, is getting her bachelor's degree in accounting.
"We were planning to have a big party for her graduation," says their brother, Joe. Since the shootings, "everything has kind of blown away."
Others will attend, but with mixed feelings. Some are anxious about seeing other graduates head off into the world toward opportunities that their slain family members will never experience.
"We should be there for him," says Linda Gwaltney, step mom of Matthew Gwaltney, who was to have accepted a master's degree in engineering. She will attend with Matthew's father, Greg.
"It's going to be difficult," she says. "I'm not looking forward to it, but it would feel worse not going."
Personal pain on public display
The first thing the victims' families discovered was that while their grief was personal, the attention focused on the massacre was global. Many weren't ready for both at once.
Some families remain too shaken to talk much.
"We're still struggling with it," says Michael Bishop, a science-fiction writer who lost his son, German language instructor Christopher James Bishop, 35.
Girish Suratkal, whose sister-in-law Minal Panchal of India was killed at 26, says the family is "still coming to terms" with the tragedy.
Littlejohn says Peterson's parents "are in constant prayer, trying to get their minds around the fact that she's gone."
Barbara La Porte, who lost her 20-year-old son Matthew, a sophomore member of the university's Corps of Cadets, says she's "just trying to get some normality back to my life."
Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old professor from Israel, was the oldest victim. The Holocaust survivor barricaded the door of his aerospace engineering class as students leapt from the windows. Everyone in the room survived — except him.
Since the shooting, his family in Raanana, near Tel Aviv, has been told repeatedly of his heroism, says Ayala Librescu, his daughter-in-law.
She says some in Librescu's family don't like the attention, but "others feel proud and honored to be able to talk about Liviu and give him all the respect he deserves for everything he has done."
It's been nearly impossible for the families to grieve in private. Interview requests arrive daily, as do condolences in all shapes and sizes: cards and e-mails, flowers and fruit baskets, Internet messages on Facebook and MySpace. Peterson's parents bought 500 thank-you cards for starters.
Former co-workers of Matthew Gwaltney, 24, planted a Japanese maple tree with leaves that are maroon — one of the school's colors — in his family's backyard in Chesterfield, Va.
Although most families might find comfort in the outpouring of support, "it may delay their grieving," says psychologist Edith Fresh, associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"There's no set order for this type of grieving," Fresh says. "It's kind of an ebb and flow. They may feel anger, then depression and then back to anger. There's no completion date."
Many families have focused their time and attention on creating memorial funds to benefit schools and churches, college scholarships and theater programs, as well as campus security and firearms safety.
The family of Maxine Turner took out a half-page ad in a northern Virginia weekly newspaper to thank well-wishers for their words and actions, including rebuilding their fence and doing yard work.
"It is unbearable," they wrote of the loss of their 22-year-old daughter and sister, who was about to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. "And yet, we must bear it."
Trying to forgive but not forget
How will they bear it?
They could take a page from a red notebook in which 19-year-old Mary Read wrote her favorite quotations — a notebook her father found the morning of her funeral.
The ever-smiling freshman's last entry, which he read to hundreds of mourners, was about the power of forgiveness: "When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive."
Peter Read — who with his wife, Catherine, will attend their late daughter's commencement — finds it a powerful message, but one that is difficult to embrace.
"I'm not saying forgiveness is easy or instantaneous," he says. "We all have this huge mix of unresolved feelings."
Several have spoken of forgiveness — for Cho and his family, the school, the mental health system. Joe Samaha, who lost his daughter Reema, 18, and also plans to be in Blacksburg this weekend, says his family's surname means forgiveness in Arabic. Cho's family, he says, "has also lost a son" and should be consoled.
Despite the two hours that passed before Virginia Tech alerted students and faculty members about the first shooting, few families blame school officials.
TIMELINE: How the tragedy unfolded
"We don't need to blame anyone," says Liselle Vega Cortes, the widow of fellow graduate student Juan Ramon Ortiz, 26, of Puerto Rico. "What happened there could have happened anywhere else."
For others, the path to recovery is paved with a desire for justice.
Joe Ly, who spells his name differently than brother Henry Lee, says the university "should have been paying closer attention" to Cho's mental state.
Mildred Granata, whose son Kevin, 45, was an engineering professor with three kids, blames gun laws that allowed Cho to buy two weapons, even though Cho had been ordered to undergo outpatient psychiatric treatment.
"I'm angry that this happened to my son, and my grandchildren are fatherless," she says.
Several families want the review panel created by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to study everything from the university's actions the morning of the shootings to the state's mental health system and gun laws.
"I do not want to go through life as an angry person, and to avoid that I know that I must forgive," Cloyd says. "But I am not sure that meaningful forgiveness is possible without also addressing the question of responsibility, and then doing something to ensure that the underlying problems are fixed."
'We want to share our grieving'
Several victims' relatives say they want to get in touch with each other, eventually. It's a step that helped survivors of past crime rampages.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was among 13 victims of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, says the families affected by that ordeal came together to raise money for a new school library.
"We also began to socialize," he says, inviting each other to weddings and graduations. "There was a bond that was formed." That may be more difficult for the Virginia Tech families because they live farther apart, he says.
Many family members met each other in Blacksburg during the days after the shootings, waiting first for the dead to be identified and then for their bodies to be released.
Cortes, who is coming with Ortiz's parents from Puerto Rico for the commencement, is one of the few victims' relatives who have spoken with others since then. "We are trying to stay in touch," she says. "It's very helpful to do that."
Many family members are eager to lean on each other. "I want to talk to all of them, see how they feel," Ly says. "For us, it's pretty painful. We want to share our grieving."
Going to commencement so soon after clearing out Henry's dorm room would be too painful. "I don't think it's a good time yet."
Others want to share happier memories.
"From what I've read about the other students, they were all so special and similar in many ways to Reema," Samaha says. "I hope the families will all be able to share in due course. I think about them always and wonder how they are doing. Whether we wanted it or not, our lives were intertwined on April 16."
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