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Ed Pilkington, Friday 27th July 2012 19:55
Relatives of the victims of the Columbine school shooting in Colorado are planning to reach out to those who lost loved ones in the Aurora cinema rampage in the hope of supporting them through the dark days ahead.
Several of the families of the 12 school children and one teacher who were killed in the Columbine massacre have been discussing how to help Aurora's bereaved families.
"We absolutely want to do something to support these families," said Coni Sanders, daughter of Dave Sanders, a teacher who was the only adult to die at Columbine. She has been in touch with three other Columbine families by email to discuss what they can do in the wake of the Aurora shooting where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded when a gunman opened fire at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
"The consensus is that we will reach out to them, and let them get back to us if they want to. We don't want to be intrusive – it should be their choice to have us join them on their journey."
Rick Townsend, who lost his 18-year-old daughter Lauren at Columbine, said that if the Aurora families expressed interest: "I know my wife Sue and I would be there to help out." But he added: "The timing needs to come from them – right now they will be in such pain that they won't be able to think how or when things could ever get better."
The shooting at Columbine high school on 20 April 1999 and the rampage at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora last Friday are separated by 13 years. But for the scores of people left bereaved by the two incidents, there is a potentially powerful connection.
It is not just that Littleton, where Columbine is located, and Aurora are both suburbs of Denver and just 17 miles apart as the crow flies. It is also that the families share a rare and terrible experience: the trauma of losing someone through unthinkable violence, followed by the prolonged agony of having to play out their grief in front of TV cameras.
"People come up to you and say: 'I know how you feel'. But they don't. They really don't understand," Townsend said. "The families of victims in Aurora can look at us and know that we do understand."
All the families of the victims of Columbine have participated in a new documentary film that they intend – again in the fullness of time – to send to each of their equivalents in Aurora. The film, 13 Families: Life After Columbine, follows them over a four year period from 2006 as they slowly shift their perspective, as Sanders describes it, "from tragedy and sadness to hope and possibility".
Sanders is partly motivated to reach out to Aurora families because she herself found invaluable the advice she received from people who lost loved ones in the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. She is grateful for one insight in particular that they gave her.
"People kept saying to us: 'Be strong, be strong'," she says. "But that was wrong. It made you feel that you couldn't breathe. I learned from Oklahoma that it was okay to be weak."
The hardest part, both Sanders and Townsend agree, beyond the sheer pain of loss, was having their grief paraded across the world's television screens. Sanders calls it "high-profile grieving in a fish bowl".
Such was the blanket coverage of the Columbine shooting that all 13 families were turned into tragedy celebrities – they became famous throughout the region for their sadness. The results were distressing.
"People expected us to be sad, they expected us to cry all the time," Sanders says. "When we were out at a restaurant and maybe laughed, people would give us funny looks. You'd be at a grocery store doing the shopping and people would come up to you and start to cry."
The day after the families gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony for the Columbine memorial in June 2006, Sanders was in the supermarket near the school when a woman came up to her, dropped to her knees and burst into tears. "I am so sorry for your loss; what a beautiful picture," she said.
Sanders hadn't even known that her portrait, taken at the ceremony, was on the front page of that morning's Denver Post. She instantly dropped her grocery bags and drove straight home to avoid further accosting.
For several years, she took to driving long distances so that she could shop where nobody recognised her. She stopped telling people her last name, and that she came from Littleton, to secure a little anonymity.
Townsend says that a lesson he learned from the aftermath of Columbine that he would want to pass on to the Aurora families is that each individual can decide how much he or she wants to participate in the media circus. "They will have to take control, or else the media will take control from them. It's up to them how far into the fish bowl they want to go."
Each of the 12 families of the Aurora dead have been assigned a public information officer by the local police department to act as protective shields. That's an excellent innovation that both Townsend and Sanders wish had been available to them.
It's not just the media that the Aurora families will have to watch out for, judging from the Columbine experience. Sanders was contacted several times by airlines informing her that people had been attempting to blag flight tickets on the spurious grounds that they were close friends of her family and were coming to visit them in Littleton.
More honest, but also difficult to deal with, were the offers of donations that poured in, forcing the family to assign an official banker. "It was very strange," Sanders says. "We went overnight from being a normal family to becoming an emotional business."
It's a long way off for Aurora, but eventually people can move beyond paralysing grief to more positive thoughts. At that point, Sanders and Townsend agree, it will be important for the families to find a purpose.
To some extent it was easier for those in the Columbine tragedy because they had the school as a bond. "We've got to remember, the people in Aurora were thrown together for no other reason than one of their family members decided to go to a movie one Thursday night," Townsend says.
In their case, they clubbed together and raised about $3m in four months to build a new library on the spot where much of the Columbine blood-letting had taken place. Each of the 13 families also found their own causes to follow: some religious, some political, some campaigning gun control, some purely personal.
Sanders took a degree in forensic psychology and now works with people with criminal histories. "My personal journey is a battle against violence – if I can teach one person to turn away from violence I will have honored my dad."
Townsend spent time customising his car with a design of angel wings around "Lulu" – his nickname for his daughter. With his wife, he also became close to Anne Marie Hochhalter, a survivor who was paralysed in the shooting and who is now virtually a member of their family.
"The key is to find something that helps you, takes your mind off it but in other ways improves you in honor of your loved one," Townsend says.
Above all, Sanders believes, the lesson for the Aurora families is: "Don't let that terrible day define you. It's so important to see yourself as someone who has been through tragedy, not someone who is the tragedy."
She goes on: "To be defined by Aurora, to be defined by Columbine, is to let the killers win. It allows them to define the change that has happened to us negatively. I am changed, yes, but now in positive ways."
Townsend hopes that one day those whose lives have been shattered in Aurora will be strong enough to watch the film 13 Families. He would like them to see through the example of Columbine that life does go on. "At this point they cannot fathom that they will ever feel joy again, but they will. The Columbine families have come to see that you cannot stop evil in the world, but you can smother it with goodness."
13 Families: Life After Columbine, is directed by Nicole Corbin, Mark Katchur and Steve Lukanic. It is being distributed as a DVD by Osiris Entertainment on 7 August.