For Missy Mendo, the news of March 22 came in a text message. It always does. “I love you, are you OK?” A flurry of similar messages followed. Mendo, 36, usually tries to shut out news of mass shootings and avoid the internet to keep her memories and emotions bottled up. But this time, the fact that the shooting unfolded just 45 minutes from her home in Boulder, Colorado, at her preferred grocery store chain, made the horror harder to avoid.
Mendo was 14, a freshman in math class, when two students attacked Columbine High School in suburban Denver. She heard the pop of gunfire, then a strange rumble, like students were banging on lockers. She peered into the hallway and saw a stream of teens sprinting toward the exit. Finally, someone yelled a warning: “They have guns, they have bombs, get out of here.”
At home, a red light blinked on her answering machine. In message after message, parents asked if Mendo had seen their missing kids. That night she slept between her parents, in her tennis shoes, doing painful arithmetic to figure out which of her classmates might be dead. Sleepless, she wondered why she had been spared, why others had not, why this school, why these parents, why, why, why? For weeks and months, she found no answers, and no one who understood her pain. This was 22 years ago, before mass shootings had become endemic to American society. Help was hard to find.
Today, that has changed. Mendo and others like her are passing on what they’ve learned as survivors to new generations. They’ve been brought together not by choice, but by circumstance and a shared history and experience few can understand. For many, these groups become a second family, a place where they feel safe. “A hug from another survivor,” Mendo likes to say, “is different from someone who is trying to console you.”
Just ask Tom Mauser. After his 15-year-old son, Daniel, died at Columbine, he had nowhere to turn for answers, for relief. People with good intentions would approach him at the grocery store to tell him how sorry they were — but also how blessed they were that their own daughter or nephew made it out alive. “That leaves you standing there thinking, ‘Well, I guess God didn’t bless me,’” Mauser says.
Mauser scrambled to pick up the pieces of his life and assemble them into something purposeful once more. To do so, he didn’t need encouragement to overcome. He didn’t need dismissiveness or exhaustion from people who hadn’t known his pain. But he didn’t know what he needed either. “You’re just kind of wandering aimlessly,” he admits.
About a month after the shooting, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet other parents who’d lost their children to gun violence. They told him he would never get over what happened, and he shouldn’t expect to. But with time the intensity of his pain should ebb. Finally, someone had answers. And he found more understanding among others who lost kids at Columbine. “Nobody knew what you were going through like these other parents,” he explains. “We were going through this together.”
Research backs up Mauser’s observations. In a 2020 paper published in the journal Victims & Offenders, Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, and an expert on mass shootings, wrote about interviews with 16 Columbine survivors and concluded, “the need to provide social support and cultivate solidarity among survivors is crucial to paving the way to a healthy recovery.” She also found that the most effective support came from “similar others,” or people who had experienced the tragedy in a similar way.
The more similar, the better. After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, for example, Mauser was invited to Newtown, Connecticut. He figured he’d have nothing to offer to the parents of murdered first graders. “I thought I had it bad, but I had nothing like what these people were going through,” he says. “But they wanted us there.” They asked almost the same questions Mauser had all those years ago, so he passed along what he’d learned.
That simple idea — that survivors are not alone — drives the support groups that have emerged across the U.S. Mendo works for one called The Rebels Project, based in Colorado, founded by Columbine survivors after the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. Today, Mendo says, the group works with survivors of over 100 “mass tragedies,” from shootings to bombings to stabbings, in the U.S. and the world.
Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group in New York, counts 251 mass shootings since 2009, with almost 1,500 killed and nearly 1,000 injured. But “there is a dark figure of survivors,” says Schildkraut — people affected by mass shootings in ways that are impossible to count.
In his recent book about how gun violence affects American children, Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox argues that beyond those who experience it directly, violence also impacts kids who go into lockdown and think they might die, while their parents frantically text them thinking the same thing. Which is why Mendo tells newcomers that whatever kind of support they’re looking for, they’ll probably find it. “It’s the most messed-up club to be a part of,” she says, “but you just love and understand all your members.”
Some survivors from the Boulder shooting have already started reaching out for help. Mendo expects their numbers to rise over time, as their immediate resources begin drying up. Like survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018. That summer, about a hundred of them visited Denver to meet with survivors of Columbine, Mendo among them, with the same questions that once kept her up at night. One kid had lost his best friend; with prom and graduation and all the other rites of passage looming larger than ever, he asked how to cope knowing his friend wouldn’t be there.
Mendo, who’d recently become a mother, had been asking herself that same question, thinking about all the kids who died at Columbine whose parents would never know grandchildren, about classmates who never had the opportunity to live as she was living. She didn’t have an easy answer, because easy answers don’t exist. So she just told him what she and Mauser and others like them had learned from decades of bitter experience.
“You’re gonna think about those things a lot,” she said, “and you’re not alone.”