In Parkland, students turn to each other to cope with tragedy

One month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students are still coping with complex emotions. Some have turned to activism, while others are focusing on telling the stories of their classmates. In some cases they're experiencing an unexpected emotion: guilt.

'Letting everyone know what happened here and just sharing our message helps a lot,' student says

Students Richard Doan, left, and Christy Ma work on an article for an upcoming memorial issue of the Eagle Eye, a student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed at the school a month ago. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

​Nikhita Nookala didn't know Meadow Pollack, one of the victims of last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but she says writing about her life for a memorial issue of the school paper has been an emotional experience. 

"Reading through all the stories that her friends have told me, she seems like someone I could have been friends with, she liked the same things I did," said the 17-year old senior who writes for the school paper, the Eagle Eye.

She says learning about Pollack's life has stirred complicated feelings. A month after the mass shooting in Parkland Florida, emotions are still raw and for Nookala, the event still doesn't feel real. 

Nikhita Nookala, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, says she hasn't yet come to terms with the tragedy that took place at her school. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"I feel like I still haven't really accepted that there's been a shooting at Douglas and all of this happening, it feels like the shooting was yesterday." she said.

Christy Ma also writes for the paper. The day after the shooting, she and Nookala were assigned to write about the event and the vigil the next day. 

"That actually took a few days to write because of how how soon everything was and how we were feeling," the 18-year old said. "If you notice, I mean if you look online, the posting is actually a few days after the vigil."

Counsellors and therapy animals

In the month since the shooting, she says every student is handling things differently. Upon their return to school there were counsellors and therapy animals to help students transition back to the classroom.

"It was like a petting zoo. Basically there were therapy dogs. There were, like, goats, like a donkey or a horse. It was pretty crazy; it almost looked like a circus at school," she said. 

Ma says while some students have chosen to channel their emotions towards activism, others have retreated from the spotlight. In her case, she says she's just trying to keep busy. 

Seventeen memorial crosses were erected in Pine Trails Park, near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, to honour the victims of the mass shooting at the school on Feb. 14. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"I think just trying not to think too long on the negative aspects but trying to look forward to my future and how I can make an impact now is something that's been helping me cope," she said.

Immersing themselves in the memorial issue is a healthy way to cope, says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. She says students are collectively mourning, so working together can help them move forward and heal. 

"If collectively they are able to get an activity that provides them with a sense of meaning, that helps them to put sense into something that we know doesn't make any sense …then it's important for them to engage in that," she said.

Hard to write about

Ma is profiling 17-year old victim Nicholas Dworet for the memorial edition. Like Nookala, she didn't know her subject personally, but after meeting with his family and close friends, she feels a connection.

"I'm not going to lie — I started crying when I was writing the article. It was hard to write and I still get emotional a little bit talking about it, but I'm really glad I had the opportunity to honour him," she said.

Student Richard Doan is profiling 15-year old victim Peter Wang. He says writing about a fellow student, while also speaking out for gun control, has been his way of coping with the tragedy.

"Being politically active, talking to media, letting everyone know what happened here, just sharing our message helps a lot," he said. 

The newspaper students are headed to Washington next weekend to cover the March for Our Lives rally for gun control that their fellow students are organizing. They've got major news organizations on board to sponsor their trip and they'll have backstage access. It's an amazing opportunity, but one Nookala says brings up an unexpected emotion: guilt.

Dealing with survivor's guilt

"This wouldn't have happened and we wouldn't have gotten this opportunity if 17 people weren't shot in school," Nookala said.

Kamkar says survivor's guilt is normal in this situation. She says whether it's writing for the newspaper or organizing a rally, having the students together provides a safe environment for students to open up and share their feelings. 

"It's important not to be afraid of our thoughts, not to be afraid of our emotions. These are normal reactions," she said. 

Nookala said she's trying not to dwell on that feeling of guilt.

"It's better to just accept it and enjoy what we have and move on because there's no point in dwelling over things that are already done."

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.