Since Feb. 14, 2018, there has not been a day that the Parkland school shooting has been absent from my mind—the tragedy of so many lives lost, the resilience of the survivors, and the profoundly powerful wave of activism that has swept forth from the voices of a community devastated by gun violence.
While the leadership of these teenagers and young adults in the aftermath of the trauma they endured is certainly inspiring, it’s easy to focus solely on their message to the nation and the personas they project to the world. However, it’s important to remember that as well-spoken, articulate, and confident as these student activists are, they are still young people who have (very recently) experienced an unimaginable tragedy, and are far from immune to the complexities and inconveniences of grief.
Grief is a prolonged, complex, and entirely non-linear process. Speaking from experience, it can’t be described using a simple flowchart found in a counselor’s office, or even generalized from person to person. In comparison to grief among adults, traumatic loss among young people has the potential to be “particularly disruptive and disorganizing,"particularly in regards to a “mass trauma” such as a school shooting. Those sorts of especially traumatic situations leave survivors especially prone to the manifestation of complicated grief, characterized by misplaced feelings of guilt and extreme difficulty in accepting the loss, along with other biopsychosocial issues. It’s also well-documented that teens have unique grief needs; while abundant resources exist everywhere for bereaved children and adults, those somewhere in between are often underrepresented when it comes to meaningful intervention and appropriate support. Adolescents are prone to internalizing rather than communicating their grief, and yearn for some source of stability during times of many transitions. Additionally, as social groups become increasingly vital to their lives and identities, the loss of peers or friends can be particularly devastating. These unique concerns, among many others, deserve consideration as we view these incredibly brave, yet undoubtedly vulnerable young adults who have been suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
The Parkland student activists have experienced an ongoing influx of publicity, due to both the magnitude of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the students’ continuous vocal appeals for institutional and national change. As such, their every action, tweet, and personal disappointment is subject to the relentless criticism of naysayers and full-blown smear campaigns initiated by those who oppose the students’ call for common-sense gun legislation. Beginning with claims that the students—focusing particularly on David Hogg and Emma González, two of the most outspoken in their collective fight for gun control—were “crisis actors,” and/or specially trained radical left-wing political instigators who “insert[ed themselves] into an important national policy debate,” those who oppose the students’ cause continue to harass and belittle the teens on social networks and major media outlets. That kind of pressure isn’t desirable for anyone, much less a handful of young adults who certainly would have loved nothing less than for the issue of guns to not be immediately relevant to their lives. But unfortunately, their lives have been changed forever, and instead of trying to come to terms with the staggering loss on their own time, many of them have chosen to take the incredibly admirable path of activism and advocacy to protect future students. Now, many of them stand in the national spotlight, having to endure more personal attacks, photoshopped images, violating investigations, and death threats than any young adult ever should. Even in the few moments—between the press conferences, memorial services, speeches, and sessions spent organizing the March for Our Lives (attended by approximately 800,000 people nationwide) and Town Hall for Our Lives—that they were able to spend smiling and laughing together, they were relentlessly criticized.
The massive degree of public visibility, obligations, and responsibilities these students now bear is mind-blowing. However, as they continue to throw themselves into their work and constantly push for change, I can’t help but keep mourning for them—for the unspeakable loss of life, for their loss of innocence in the full-blown glare of the public spotlight and as the latest popular target of right-wing pundits’ vitriol, and for the lack of peace and quiet that is entirely necessary to begin processing a loss of any kind. I hope that the knowledge that they sparked a conversation that has gained massive traction worldwide brings them some comfort and relief as they find time to continue (and even properly begin) to mourn the loss of their classmates and friends, supported by a strengthened community and tens of thousands of well-wishers worldwide. It is vital that we, as young people, are proactive and fight for the common good. The Parkland students are courageously making history within our current political climate. Hopefully, their movement will bring about further action that will save countless lives for years to come.