Healing Continues One Year Later


Published: April 17, 2008

The laughter stopped as quickly as it started.  Together for the first time since the Virginia Tech shootings last April, the first couple of weeks of summer were strained.  Terrified that any of our tight-knit group had come so close to being gone forever, each argument quickly segued into apologetic tears. There was so much tension, remembering those that we had lost, while still holding a bit too tightly to those that had made it through the harrowing ordeal.  We were afraid to be too light-hearted and tried to saturate each moment with significance.  Each joke was stifled with the guilt of still being alive.  Our knuckles were turning white from gripping to the shattered pieces of Hokie Nation.

The mascot of the Virginia Technical Institute is a turkey, known as a Hokie. The Hokies are seen throughout Virginia Tech’s home of Blacksburg, Va., stenciled on walls and bronzed as statues on many corners.  Each student, current or alumni, is a Hokie in soul and spirit. On April 16, 2007, that Hokie fortitude spread to college students across the country.

I received a text message from my aunt, a news producer in Virginia, alerting me to the first shootings of the spree.  Recognizing the name of the building where the earliest killings took place as the dorm of a few of my friends, I flew into a panicky mess.  Dialing my friends as quickly as possible only to receive a busy signal, I ran back to my dorm room. I continued to punch in phone numbers as I flipped on CNN and logged onto Virginia Tech’s Web site.  Finally, I got through to one of my friends, who was in a lockdown of the engineering building where the majority of the destruction took place.  I could hear gunshots in the background as I repeated everything CNN reported for my friend.

Sick with dread, I logged onto Facebook, hoping to see activity from my other friends.  Refreshing the page every couple of seconds, the relief was immense as more and more statuses read, “I’m safe!”, “Don’t worry about me!” or “I’m okay, has anyone seen (fill in name)?”  Even though many of my friends were missing classmates or roommates, the list of people I had to check on was getting shorter and shorter.  I took a moment to inhale deeply and glance back at CNN.  The scroll along the bottom read that there were 21 fatalities. Then the number jumped to 28.  Then it was 32.  And then, it was over.

I didn’t sleep for three days. I couldn’t tell if it was morning or night, and I would call friends repeatedly, not remembering if we had already spoken.  I wasn’t the only one—there was a constant state of worry for everyone.  We were all a little bit broken.

In the year since, we’ve blamed everyone for the event.  No one seriously evaluated Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter and a Tech student, after multiple red flags were raised for his erratic behavior. He played too many violent video games; there is too much violence on television and in movies.  He had a tough childhood and was socially awkward.  There is no solution.  There is not a single answer—no “Ah-hah!” moment.  He was a lonely kid in desperate need of psychiatric attention.  However, since we can’t make him face the consequences of his actions and point a finger, we need to find something else to focus our upset.

We’ve cited Cho as a motivator for shootings since, such as the Valentine’s Day massacre at East Northern Illinois University or one young man’s rampage in a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebr.  The administration of Virginia Tech was blamed for improper protocol while looking for the shooter.  Needless to say, there was, and still is, a lot of confusion and anger.

The Hokie was cut last April.  Although the wound still hasn’t healed, it has started to scab over.  The memories and fear are still strong, but there was a shift of focus. Instead of concerning ourselves with the fact that some of our friends and all of our sense of security was stolen, we focused on each other. No doubt we all still had a lingering resentment over the fear that shoved us rudely into the real world after our shelter of a thus normal college existence.  Now, each normal experience is more important.  We say, “I love you” and “I miss you.”  There is no awkwardness or embarrassment if we want an extra hug before we leave one another.  Still, this newfound ability to truly appreciate one another comes with a deep sadness.

We simply, and unfortunately, know the world we live in. The mindset of invincibility that young adults have was taken from us, with way too many rounds of gunfire.  Each of us has had to find a coping method, a different way to mourn.  One friend ran his SUV off the road after witnessing his classmates fall.  Another had her stomach pumped after taking too many sleeping pills. We have had to work our way through the guilt.  We look out for one another, knowing that we have all changed.  With our Hokie, or honorary Hokie, status, we know that although our laughter is a bit forced, we are lucky to be able to laugh at all.