Jerry Wright was supposed to celebrate his 34th birthday this past weekend. He was supposed to decorate the Christmas tree with his mother after Thanksgiving dinner — their annual ritual — and celebrate the holidays with his newborn nephews.
Instead, his mother spent the weekend giving away baskets of Thanksgiving food in Jerry’s honor.
“Holidays aren’t the same anymore,” Jerry’s mother, Maria, said.
Jerry Wright was one of 49 people shot and killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 — and just one of the hundreds of people who’ve died in mass shootings in recent years.
“I would do anything to have my son back. It’s been three and a half years, and I miss him every single day,” Wright said. “They say time heals, but it doesn’t heal this.”
For survivors living in an age when society has grown numb to a seemingly endless loop of mass shootings, the holiday season can feel particularly painful.
Times of intense triggers about the loss of a loved one are more likely to happen around anniversary times, when another shooting happens, and during the holidays, said Robin Gurwitch, a professor and psychologist at Duke University Medical Center.
During those times, some survivors turn to faith. Sharon Risher lost her mother, two cousins and a childhood friend in 2015 when a white supremacist killed nine people at a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I light candles on their birthdays. I have a special place in my room I call my faith corner. On Christmas, I’ll say a prayer,” she said.
For Sari Kaufman, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year’s shooting still feels surreal — a former student opened fire at the high school, killing 17 students and staff and wounding 17 others.
“All the emotions are so raw even two years after,” Kaufman, 17, said. “Getting our diplomas, and graduating, and getting our cap and gown and knowing that … I think some of my friends still haven’t processed everything.”
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‘It puts me right back’
Since 2006, nearly 1,800 people have died in amass shooting in the U.S. (defined as a shooting with at least four fatalities, not including the suspect), according to the USA TODAY/Associated Press/Northeastern University mass killings database. Other databases track more shootings and cite higher totals.
In 2019 alone, there have been 32 mass shootings and 170 fatalities — the most mass shooting incidents in more than a decade, according to the database. Many more victims have been psychologically scarred.
“There’s so many happening that we’re beginning to forget,” Wright said. “Somebody told me recently that there’s so many they all begin to run together. And that’s the biggest tragedy.”
Wright said that when she hears about another mass shooting, she can’t bear to watch the news coverage.
“It puts me right back. I know exactly what those parents or loved ones are going through,” Wright said. “I don’t want to take away from the mother whose son dies in her arms when he goes to take out the trash. Those stories are just as terrible as mine. But in a mass shooting, this horrible thing happens to you in such a public way.”
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For Risher, news of shootings that affect minority groups, in particular, hurts the most.
“In my black experience, in being a minority — the (Tree of Life) synagogue shooting, it hurt,” she said. “When it really gets to hate crimes, then that hits home even more because now you’re party of a minority of a minority. We have subsections of mass shootings. Is that not crazy?”
Risher had been on a speaking tour about the Charleston shooting when she heard the news about Parkland.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “… When I saw that it was the school, I felt like someone hit me in the chest with a hammer.”
School shootings strike a particular chord for Kaufman. Earlier this month, a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, left three teens dead, including the gunman.
“When I saw the Saugus school shooting, it brings me back to everything on the day — how the news reports come in, the interviews,” she said. “We completely lost our innocence that day.”
‘The loneliest club you don’t want to be a part of’
Many survivors have found solace in a range of online and offline support groups.
Wright participates in the survivor network with the nonprofit Everytown, which advocates for gun control. She’s also in two Whatsapp chats — one in Spanish, and one in English — for the “Pulse moms.”
“We try to support each other. Sometimes there’s no one else who can really get it. It’s kind of ironic because none of us knew each other until our children were killed together,” Wright said.
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Wright said she’s met many other survivors through the network and her own organic chain of relationships, including a mother who lost her 17-year-old son in the Parkland shooting.
“This is so sad that you can now have someone mentor you through this process. But I’ve been there to be an ear, be a shoulder and remind her that she needs to take care of herself — that yes, nightmares are part of it,” Wright said.
Risher, similarly, has become close to a survivor of the shooting that claimed 22 lives at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, this past August. On Friday, residents shed tears and prayed during a ceremony unveiling a memorial dedicated to the victims.
“The survivors, when we’re together, you know that these people have been through something horrific. It is the loneliest club you don’t want to be a part of,” Risher said.
Young people, in particular, will channel their trauma into activism, Gurwitch said. The Parkland students have gained worldwide attention for speaking out against gun violence and organizing school walk-outs.
“Sharing my story constantly — some people have vivid flashbacks — but I see it more as a coping mechanism for me,” said Kaufman, who has spent nearly the past two years organizing voter registration drives and speaking at events about red flag laws and universal background checks.
Kaufman said that, about a year ago, she met with some survivors of the 1999 Columbine shooting. “It was interesting but frightening to see that, 20 years out, the emotions don’t leave you,” she said. “But also, it was inspiring to hear that they are still working on gun issues and mental health care.”
Staying positive, giving thanks
Kaufman, Risher and Wright said they plan to continue working on gun violence issues.
Kaufman plans to study political science in college and run for office one day. Risher wrote a book about the Charleston shooting and continues to speak about what happened there.
Wright said she tries to raise the issue of gun violence with everyone she meets. She’s worked on a podcast about life after losing Jerry and on a music video with musician Michael Franti. She’ll even bring up the issue to the person waiting next to her in line at the grocery store.
“When you choose to be the voice your child no longer has, on the one hand it is empowering and you do feel like you’re honoring your child. But it also makes it very hard when these things keep happening,” she said. “When people find out, they always say ‘I can’t imagine.’ But I wish for a moment everybody could imagine it. Then we would have found a solution by now.”
Jerry won’t be at the dinner table Thursday, but Wright said she’s still giving thanks for the time that she did have with her son.
“It’s sometimes very hard to see the positive and stay grateful,” she said. “I did have the blessing of having him for 31 years, and I tell myself that.”
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network at nctsn.org provides a variety of resources regarding school and mass shootings.
The National Center for PTSD at ptsd.va.gov and the National Alliance on Mental Illness at nami.org provide mental health resources.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), provides confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Contributing: Matt Wynn, USA TODAY