How to Survive the 20th Anniversary of a Mass Shooting

Krista Hanley
Apr 20, 2019 · 4 min read
Image: Krista Hanley.

Krista Hanley, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine mass shooting, lists how she prepares for the trauma and scars 20 years later.


Mark the date on your calendar soon after the start of the year. This means you add a star to the day like you have for the previous 19 years. It’s a little code so you remember to set aside the day — as if you could or would ever forget.


Create a checklist for what to do, because you need to be immensely organized in order to feel you have control.


Ask the mass shooter support group that you are part of for help. Because you’re in one. Why not talk to the only people who have an idea of what you’re going through? Communities all over the world who survived 20-, 25-, 30-, and 40-year traumaversaries, certainly they will have advice for what to do, how to prepare, how to stop the impending sense of doom that swirls in your chest for months before. But, while you get a lot of virtual hugs and suggestions to stay away from the media, there’s no checklist of how to handle the grip of anxiety and fear that creeps closer with the day. And you’re a checklist type of person.


Ask your friends what they’re doing that day. These are friends you were with on other traumaversaries, friends that understand the need to express quiet compassion, seething anger, awed disbelief, tortuous pain, or dry humor. Friends that were also brought to their knees in the school when you were all so young.


Give yourself permission to feel your emotions, however those emotions come out. Write them. Speak and scream them. Eat them … chocolate beckons — it won’t fill the gaping holes, but it could ease some of the pain for a moment or two. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel these feelings, even though they’re uncomfortable and painful and full of shame and grief and guilt.


Try to avoid triggers. But the world is full of triggers, so return to step five.


Accept the publicity around those who lost loved ones and those who were injured. Let the traumaversary be for those who are no longer here and those whose bodies hold scars. The media will never believe mental trauma can compare to physical injury. They don’t realize that even though the 17-year-old you was not shot, her life also changed irrevocably.


Talk to your therapist. It could help. But ultimately there is still a day, a day full of twenties. Twenty years later, the twentieth of the month. Twenty, an age some of your classmates never reached.


Support all the voices telling their stories — in the media, in books and movies. Realize you can add your voice, you can tell your story, you can be a part of the retelling of the day and the 20 years after.


Erase the checklist. Shouldn’t you be living life to its fullest, as they say? Shouldn’t traumaversaries remind you how much time has gone by and how much time you have wasted by not getting over it? But you don’t believe you are actually capable of getting over it. A mass shooting isn’t a hurdle you vault over and then keep running by. It’s more like a chasm opening in the middle of the track, swallowing you, the track, the hurdle, the audience, and the sky. Sometimes you make progress by climbing back up the side of the cliff; sometimes you fall back into the pit.


Draw breath each day. Light a candle each night. Help your body realize that it is not 20 years ago. It is not a doom-filled day in April. It is now. It is 20 years later. It is just another day in the life of a mass-shooting survivor. It is every day.

KRISTA HANLEY is a writer, curator, artist, and self-defense instructor living in the Denver area. Her work has been published in Memoir Magazine, Stories Gathered at the Kitchen Table, and the Sandy Hook / Columbine Cooperative website.

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