Life After Gun Violence

Photo by Praneeth Rajsingh

The Northern Illinois University (NIU) police chief led her around the room. The shooter walked in through here, he tells her, tracing a path from the door, to the stage, and into the rows of seats. He explains which seat she was sitting in and what firearms the assailant used. Maria traces the scars on her neck where the bullets did the most damage. For her, this room will never again be a simple classroom. It’s a crime scene.

Maria now walks past room 101 every day. She hasn’t forgotten the trauma— but she’s taking strides to make sure it never happens again.

Maria was critically injured in the 2008 Valentine’s Day shooting at NIU. At 3:05 p.m., a gunman dressed in all black entered room 101 near the auditorium’s stage. He fired into the center section of students before tearing up and down the classroom’s aisles, shooting as he went. Maria was among the first to be shot. After killing five people and injuring 21 others, the attacker turned the gun on himself.

Attacks like the one at NIU are becoming all too common. On average, more than 108,000 people are injured by gun violence in the U.S. each year—roughly 76,000 of them survive. However, this number does not come close to describing the true amount of people affected. Friends, family, the wounded—experts and advocates call these people survivors. For each tragedy, an entire community suffers the aftermath. But some survivors are creating a web of support and protection for others affected by gun violence.

Making a New Normal

For many survivors, becoming a resource for their community is not only fulfilling, but crucial to recovery. “Everybody is going to have their own way of dealing with things,” says Rachel Beach, coordinator at the Crisis Center of Johnson County in Iowa City, Iowa. Beach explains that for a lot of people, it’s about finding meaning in the senseless violence.

Moving past an incident of gun violence is no simple task. Beach says that those injured may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. And for the loved ones of victims, their grieving process may be complicated by the nature of the crime. “People are going to experience shock, numbness, disconnect from reality, disbelief, difficulty concentrating,” Beach says. “Then of course all the normal sadness and fear.”

Many claim time heals all wounds, but Beach explains it’s more about learning to live with loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of innocence, loss of security. “We don’t get over a loss. We integrate it. Life doesn’t go back to normal—we make a new normal,” Beach says. “There’s no timeline for grief. People think you should be over it after a certain amount of time, but the reality is that your grief is going to be something you live with for the rest of your life.”

This is a lesson Maria had to learn. Upon her arrival at the emergency room, doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival. When she woke up from surgery, she was terrified to find her arms and legs bound to the hospital bed, drainage and feeding tubes weaving in and out of her chest, collarbones, and throat. While in the ICU, Maria could barely move. She couldn’t speak or eat. “My only form of communication was my hands,”she says. “I would write things down in a notebook to communicate with my parents.”

After 11 days in the hospital, Maria wanted to go back to normal. But when she looked in the mirror and saw her wounds, she knew that life would never be the same. “I can’t forget it, and I don’t want to forget it. I still think about it every single day,” Maria says. “But I know I didn’t want it to be my whole life.”

Instead of hiding from the trauma, Maria confronted her challenges head-on. Early on in her recovery, she wondered if she would be able to return to school. “How was I going to finish?” she asked. “Would I be able to?” Her parents told her not to worry about classes. She could work things out with her professors later. However, Maria decided to return to campus. “Going back to school and being with my friends was good. It kept my mind off of it,” she says. “We had something bad happen, but we should be with each other. We should overcome this together.”

It had only been two months since the shooting when Maria asked the NIU police chief to take her back to the scene of the crime. She was a criminal justice major, and by revisiting the shooting, she was able to reconcile her passion for law enforcement with the trauma she’d suffered. When the police chief heard Maria’s request, he told her she was crazy. She replied, “I want to go back. That’s part of the healing process, and that’s what I want to do.”

Advocating for Change

Dan Levey’s brother, Howard, was shot and killed in a carjacking in 1996. His family received the news of his death in a small hospital waiting room. They weren’t given a crisis worker or a grief counselor. Instead, a nurse entered the room and asked if they could quiet their cries so as to not disturb the other patients. A doctor prescribed the family sleeping pills and sent them home.

“I’m sure [the nurse] didn’t know the dynamic of what had just occurred. But as we sat there sobbing, that became an early ember for me to say, ‘Something’s wrong with this picture,’” Levey says.

Even though Howard is gone, Levey still lives on—and thus considers himself to be a survivor. “A survivor is somebody that despite the horrific hand they’ve been dealt in life, they’re persevering and continuing to go on,” Levey says.

He attended support group meetings and was able to hear other survivors’ concerns. Like himself, many experienced major obstacles that Levey felt they had a right to avoid. “I heard of survivors who had to take time off work and lose all their leave time to go to court proceedings that they have a constitutional right to go to. And I think things like that are important,” Levey says. “A lot of survivors want to know that they’re not incidental to the criminal proceedings, and they won’t be treated in those proceedings like they’re pieces of evidence when they’re not.”

Levey took his new mission to the political realm. He advocated for better treatment of survivors, eventually working his way up to positions in the governor’s and attorney general’s offices. “For me it was more about serving victims of crime and those in the community who needed a voice,” Levey says.

Today, he continues to advocate for survivors as the executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, a nonprofit that provides support for survivors of all violent crime, gun-related or otherwise. By picking up the pieces for others like himself, Levey was able to reconstruct his life in the wake of his own loss. “The one thing we all have is that we’re in this thing called life together,” Levey says. “And hopefully, for those who’ve lost loved ones, they know there’s a place where they can reach out and at least know, if only for a moment, that they’re not alone.”

Return and Protect

The day she returned to room 101, Maria didn’t know that eight years later, she’d patrol the same halls. Today, she’s a wife, a mother, and a campus security officer at the same school where she almost lost her life. “I’m not the victim anymore,” Maria says.

Although she encounters violence on the job, Maria never allows fear to dictate her purpose. “I don’t relate my job to what happened to me. I try not to because I think it’d be emotional,” she says. “I can’t be teary-eyed during a violent situation because I’m not of good use if I’m like that.”

Every day, she passes the relics of the shooting that changed her life: the remodeled auditorium, the memorial standing next to Cole Hall, and the trees scattered around NIU’s campus, each planted in memory of a victim who passed away. Maria faces these reminders of her past with both sorrow and gratitude. While she mourns for her friends and peers who were killed, she’s thankful for the second chance she was given. “Little by little I still heal, even though I don’t notice it,” Maria says. “It’s just being thankful. Thankful that I have my kids with me, and that I was able to have a family and move on from it. And that’s part of overcoming it too.”

For Maria, being a survivor means not letting any obstacle stand in the way of her desire to protect her community. For others, like Levey, it’s honoring the memory of a loved one by helping other survivors cope. “A fighter who wants to fight against everything that stands between that goal—I think that’s what a survivor is,” Maria says. “And if it’s putting you down, you keep getting up.”

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