Surviving Mass Tragedies and Moving Forward

By Alyssa Weston

The Youngstown community gathered in Stambaugh Auditorium to witness an awe-inspiring panel titled, “Surviving and Moving Forward” presented by Centofanti Symposium on April 11.

The panel featured individuals who survived or were widely affected by mass tragedies in America, and included:

  • Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School shooter
  • Fred Guttenberg, father of Jaime Guttenberg, who was killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting
  • Kaitlin Roig, former Sandy Hook teacher
  • Brandon Wolf, survivor of the Pulse Nightclub shooting
  • Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville

“We are humbled by your courage and grateful for the opportunity,” Francisco told the panelists.

The five panelists met briefly before the event, and met for the first time in Youngstown. The group agreed that although they were strangers, the bond they have from sharing similar tragedies made them feel like they knew each other prior.

Guttenberg said his life has been “anything but normal” since the day his daughter was killed.

“In a strange way, the only times I feel any sensitive or normalcy is what I’m around other people who can empathize with what my family is going through because they’ve gone through a similar trauma,” Guttenberg said.

Klebold expressed her concern for joining the panel, knowing that her son had caused similar grief upon people just like the ones alongside her on the panel.

Photo by Tanner Mondok/The Jambar

“I was afraid my association with a family member who had been a perpetrator would be traumatic for [the other panelists]. But, when we all met and sat down and talked, it was just amazing how our shared experiences and loss and survival that we have many, many things in common,” Klebold said.

Caroline Smith, a junior political science major, said she attended the event because of the powerful messages of the panelists and the violence that has been characteristic of the United States.

“The message from Sue Klebold really stood out to me. She talked about how violence happens after we dehumanize others, a process that degrades a person to one single quality about them, like their race or gender. She talked about how detrimental this can be, and how important it is to view a person as a whole rather than one part,” Smith said.

The group expressed how they’ve used their unwanted limelight as a form of activism and speak out against gun violence as advocates for mental health and suicide prevention.

“It’s very strange how you take a death — instead of collapsing into your grief, instead you step up and you go ‘damn it, I’m not putting up with that,’ And that’s what we’ve all done,” Bro said.

Wolf talked to the crowd about survivor’s guilt, and said the hardest part of losing someone is being afraid he will forget. But Wolf finds strength in keeping his friend’s memories alive through scholarships and gay-straight alliances.

The panelists were descriptive on the details on their loved ones deaths, aiming to be realistic about the tragedies.

“When I’m talking about how my daughter got murdered, I don’t want people to feel comfortable and I don’t want what happened to just be a temporary reaction,” Guttenberg said

According to Roig, after the Sandy Hook tragedy she made two choices — the shooting wouldn’t define her community and they would get control back.

“In making those two choices, the most incredible opportunities and experiences that have happened in my life over the course of the past six years.” she said. “When you find yourself in those lows, dark moments and hard times we each have choices. We don’t have to be defined by our hard times.”

Joseph Mosca, interim provost at Youngstown State University, thanked the speakers during the panels opening remarks.

“I’m deeply grateful for our panel speakers this evening for coming to Youngstown and being willing to generously share what most of us find unthinkable. Their resilience, strength and conviction are both amazing and humbling at the same time,” he said.

The panel was moderated by Timothy Francisco, English instructor and director of the Center for Working Class Studies at YSU.