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The arrival of red roses and heart-shaped candies in grocery stores and retailers means Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.
But in Parkland, the arrival of February 14 eclipses the Hallmark holiday. Thursday marks one year since a former student shot and killed 17 and injured 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The day is forever seared in the memory of South Florida.
Memorials and ceremonies have been planned across Florida and around the world to remember the 14 students and three school staffers lost that day. Stoneman Douglas will be open Thursday for a short day of community service projects.
According to the school district, students can participate in projects including serving breakfast to first responders and packing meals for undernourished children beginning at 7:40 a.m. There will be mental health providers on campus and therapy dogs available. A moment of silence will be held at 10:17 a.m. The school closes at noon.
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But many of the victims’ families contacted by the Miami Herald said they planned to spend the day privately.
“That’s for the community,” said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was among those killed. “[It has] no meaning on the families. I don’t need any reminder on the 14th to remember my daughter was murdered.”
Pollack has channeled his grief into holding those accountable for policies that led to the shooting. He has now set his sights on removing Robert Runcie as Broward school superintendent.
“Instead of all the families grieving, we attend meetings about school safety and what’s going on at the schools,” he said. “We’ve been all involved in that instead of being able to move on.”
“I don’t need a day to remind me of that day,” Pollack added. “I live it every day.”
Other parents shared similar sentiments.
“Just pretend as much as we can it’s a regular Thursday,” said April Schentrup, who lost her daughter, Carmen. Schentrup has been focused on creating safer schools and pushing for universal background checks for gun purchases.
“We’re not really doing anything that day, just being together as a family,” she said. “Most of us just want to be home with our family.”
Fred Guttenberg said his family will visit his daughter Jaime at the cemetery and stay in for the day.
“We just are just going to spend the time as a family,” he said. “Most families I’ve spoken to are going to take a more private approach.”
Debbie Hixon’s son, Chris Hixon, the Stoneman Douglas athletic director, was killed when he ran into the freshman building after hearing gunfire. She’s been planning a 5k race in memory of Chris on Hollywood Beach on Feb. 16, followed by a celebration of life to celebrate his birthday, which is Feb. 25.
“I think I’ve looked past the 14th to the 16th,” Debbie said. “It’s distracting. I like to stay busy. …The 14th isn’t going to change how we are. It’s the day that it happened but we live it every single day.”
Grieving as individuals
UMHealth psychologist Dr. Nicole Mavrides, a Stoneman Douglas alumna and Parkland resident, said it’s more common than not to grieve privately, even if some of the families have been active and outspoken.
“The people who lost loved ones in the Parkland tragedy … they have to deal with this day in and day out,” she said. “Everyone else has the ability to move on and not have to think about it every single day. But for someone who lost a child or a significant other, every day they’re reminded of their loss.”
Mavrides explained that the death of a child or loved one usually isn’t national news, and the anniversary of their death would be a day usually spent in the quiet of their home and with their friends.
“But because it was so many people,” she said, “it was kind of assumed that everyone would be grieving together, but that’s not always how people grieve.”
The Columbine experience
Paula Reed, a teacher who survived the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado on April 20, 1999, now travels to speak with teachers who survived school shootings. She’s been invited to speak with Stoneman Douglas teachers twice: once in August and again last month.
“For the first five years, people very often are doing very different things from one anniversary to the next because they’re trying to figure out what works for them,” Reed said. “The first anniversary is just raw. I don’t think you can take whatever happens on the first anniversary as typical.”
Reed recalls holding a ceremony in the school gym on the first anniversary of the Columbine shooting. The student body president spoke and 13 balloons were released. The principal read the victims’ names over the intercom. No one was allowed to attend except the students and teachers. Similar to the planned Stoneman Douglas ceremony, school let out right after.
Reed went to the ceremony that day and again for the anniversary for the next few years, but then couldn’t do it anymore. She doesn’t make plans anymore, instead she spends the day cleaning out her home and donating items to charity.
“What you see happening in Parkland is going to be a broad range of things,” she said. “There are going to be teachers and kids who can’t be there that day. There are going to be teachers and kids who cannot be anywhere else that day. There’s not one way a survivor deals with the first anniversary.”
And though Reed says a day hasn’t gone by in 20 years when she hasn’t thought about the tragedy, she said the buildup may be worse than the day of the anniversary itself.
“I really just wanted to take a sleeping pill on the 19th and take another one halfway through the 20th,” Reed said. “What I discovered is it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be.”