Written by Kandice Marshall-Cunanan, LMFT
On February 14, 2018 a young man walked into a school in Florida with an AR-15 and began shooting. He killed 17 students that day. I have to admit that after all of these years I was beginning to grow numb. If I allowed myself to feel anything I would have become paralyzed because I would be so overwhelmed with emotion everyday, day after day, it would never end. Each day there is a mass shooting in our country. Each day someone’s child doesn’t go home. And not a day goes by that I am not grateful that mine do come home and for that I carry a little bit of guilt.
On February 15, 2018 I was reading my Facebook posts when I saw one from a friend of mine from middle school. A few years ago she moved to Florida with her husband and daughters. Typically her posts are filled with happy moments with her family but not on that day. On that day she had written a memorial for one of the children killed on February 14th. As I read it I began to cry. I couldn’t stop. I cried for everyone. And then I realized I was also crying because I was grateful. I was so grateful that it wasn’t my daughter, that it wasn’t in my town. I went back and read it again, and again, counting my blessings. So thankful I wasn’t writing a memorial about a child, a person I once knew killed in a mass shooting. With great pain and sadness, though, today is my day.
It’s been 10 days since 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in my town.
November 8, 2018 was my mom’s birthday. My family had planned on going to The Lakes in Thousand Oaks to celebrate that night. And on November 7, 2018 when I fell asleep, around 11:30 p.m, I fell asleep thinking about the fun we would have the next day. Ten minutes earlier 12 people in my town had been fatally shot by another young man in my town.
I woke up that morning excited at what the day would bring. I was excited to go out that night. And so when I checked my phone I was not prepared for the messages I had received through out the night.
My daughter’s message read, “There was a mass shooting by your apartment….”
I don’t even have words to describe how I felt. I sent her a message back letting her know that I was fine, I was shocked I hadn’t heard anything, and grateful that my brother, her uncle, wasn’t there because, like most Thousand Oaks residents, including myself, he used to go there. She responded that she was happy her uncle had not been there the night before. I was too.
I began reading and watching the news trying desperately to find out as much as I could about the shooting. I realized, as I read, that there would be a strong possibility I would know someone who had been there. That strong possibility did not include knowing the dead.
Like most of the people in my town, I found myself driving to The Oaks to pay my respects to Sgt. Helus, who had been killed as he responded to an active shooter call at Borderline the night before. I can’t even say why I did it. I didn’t know him but the pain I was beginning to feel was getting worse just sitting at home. I knew the route his body would take because it was the same route my daughters and I had sat along to watch as President Ronald Reagan’s body was take to his library in Simi Valley after he died. I was not surprised by all the people there. It was comforting. While I waited for his body to pass I continued to receive messages about Borderline. One was just a picture of a young man and a plea to help find him.
I read that plea over and over again and then I reposted it.
My heart was breaking for everyone because now it was my town.
As I read the post again I realized I knew him but he wasn’t one of the kids I used to work with he was my daughter’s friend from kindergarten.
When we first moved back here from San Diego I worked a swing shift and I didn’t have as much time with my daughters as I had had before. One day in the school news letter I read they were hiring campus supervisors and so I got a job there. This way I could remain involved, as much as possible, in my kids life. On my first day I worked in the kindergarten yard and when I walked in I was immediately greeted by another campus supervisor. She wanted me to know that I would be watching a particular child due to a medical condition. After that, anytime I was there I paid extra attention to him even when I wasn’t assigned to him.
Now I was looking at him as one of the missing. I was having trouble processing the information and so I contacted my older daughter and that’s when she confirmed that the little boy and the man I was looking at were the same person.
Time was beginning to slow down. I needed to breathe.
Focus…..breathe in……breathe out…….Again……..breathe in……breathe out……
I needed to keep my composure. I couldn’t fall apart with a stranger in my house.
Around 1:30 p.m. my older daughter confirmed that little boy, no, that young man had died. I cried out and the man working in my house came rushing in to check on me but stopped short when I said, “He died!”
During the past 10 days I have had to evacuate my home because of 2 fires. I’ve been to memorials, fundraisers, and I’ve found myself sitting on the sidewalk staring at the cross that bares his name. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t allow myself to go to that place where another person my daughters knew had died. Over time I would learn that it wasn’t 1 person my family knew at Borderline but 4 people.
Many people are familiar with the Five Stages of Grief. For those who aren’t they are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We don’t necessarily go through them in that order and sometimes we will return to a particular stage while grieving. Some may never go through a particular stage, as the model was originally used to describe terminally ill patients. I have used this model to help my daughters and clients in the past and now I realize I am also going through it. I didn’t realize, until I was buying flowers to lay at his cross, that I was also in denial.
Tomorrow, November 19, 2018, my youngest daughter will turn 21 years old. Ten days ago I was so excited but now I’m sad. During all my reading and information gathering I discovered one of the victims who died would have also been 21 years old tomorrow, too. He will forever be 20 years old. Today his mother had a memorial for him and I find myself Angry.
I live in a nice town. A really nice town and I’m angry that it took this for me to realize what I’ve had all along, a wonderful and supportive community filled with people trying to do right by their families, friends, community. We are far from perfect and now my town is a statistic and not the one we held November 6, 2018, one of the safest cities in America. Now we are known for being the city that had America’s 307th mass shooting in 2018. The year isn’t over and everyday there is another mass shooting and that’s why I’m angry. My heart is breaking but I am not broken. I’m Angry that this continues to happen and the only thing we seem to be able to do is offer “thoughts” and “prayers” but I know that in the end I can say, “I tried.” As a mental health professional, I am doing my part and now I’m asking everyone else to do their part so that this doesn’t happen in their town. #TOStrong