A Sandy Hook Survivor Offers Advice For Orlando

"You don't get beyond it but you learn how to put one foot in front of the other and, despite what you've gone through, find joys in other parts of your life."

As Mary Ann Jacob awoke to news of horrifying carnage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a steady stream of texts began popping up on her phone.

This is routine in the wake of mass shootings. Jacob was the library clerk the day that Adam Lanza burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School, taking the lives of 20 kids and six adults. The individuals sending those texts were fellow survivors.

"We check on how the other is doing," Jacob explained.

By Sunday afternoon, she and three other survivors had gathered together, watching reports from what would turn out to be the largest shooting in modern American history. Moments like these are horrifying for anyone watching. But for those, like Jacob, who lived through similar incidents, there is an additional, complex layer of emotion.

"It makes it all very present," Jacob said by phone.

As of Sunday night, police said 50 people had died and 53 had been injured at Pulse in Orlando. Yet many others who were physically unscathed had their lives irrevocably changed just by being in the wrong place on the wrong night. It's a macabre club that is, sadly, growing.

"When these things happen we tend to band together in this freakish family of people who know what the other people are going through," Jacob said. She, too, received advice and support from others who had experienced similar tragedy. Survivors of the Columbine High School shooting reached out early.

"It made us realize, wow, they were still alive 10 to 15 years down the road. They were still putting one foot in front of the other."

A parent who had lost a child in a shooting at an Amish schoolhouse told her that overcoming the tragedy was like being "in a really long tunnel as opposed to a cave."

Handout via Getty Images

There is no simple five-step plan for overcoming the psychological trauma of surviving an incident like what took place in Orlando. Everyone's experience is different.

On the day Lanza burst through the elementary school doors, Jacob was in the library. Hearing what sounded like gunfire over the PA system, she moved a file cabinet in front of the door and quickly herded the 18 children in the room into a supply closet. The next three minutes felt like an hour. She waited there until police finally came to the door.

The days after the shooting were "a sickening blend" of absorbing what had transpired and trying to move forward, Jacob recalled. She and other educators had the responsibility of reopening the school for the surviving children. But "there is no way you can mourn 26 people in five days and go back to regular life in a normal way," she said.

Being around town became exhausting, with the area inundated by journalists. "You couldn't go to the laundromat, to Subway or the local restaurants. Most of us stayed away, stayed in our homes," she said.

But staying at home wasn't without its difficulties either. Jacob would read coverage about the shooting online, where she first stumbled on the conspiracy theories that insisted it never actually took place. She and the rest of the survivors grew protective of each other. She didn't experience survivor's guilt, but, rather, a sense of luck that she came out alive.

"I just feel it was a game of chance almost," she said of that day. "Why did he go this way instead of that way? Why did he turn left instead of right?"

The light at the end of that long tunnel that the Amish mother said would come eventually arrived. The horror of that December morning hasn't left Jacob. But she has learned to manage it.

"The way I would describe it is if I put my two hands out in front of me," Jacob said. "My regular life is in my right hand. And the tragedy is in my left hand. Most days it sits comfortably on my shoulder and I look at it and I see it happening and it can come and go in my mind. Other days it weighs very heavily and almost brings me to my knees. But it's always right there. And so, you don't get beyond it but you learn how to put one foot in front of the other and, despite what you've gone through, find joys in other parts of your life."

“You don't get beyond it but you learn how to put one foot in front of the other and, despite what you've gone through, find joys in other parts of your life.”

- Mary Ann Jacob, a Sandy Hook survivor, on getting over her grief

For the survivors from the Pulse shooting, and those who had loved ones at the club, it could be some time before they get back to a place where they find subtle and not-so-subtle joys in life. The immediate future, Jacob warned, will be difficult.

"They are going to be inundated by media. They are going to be inundated by people who say it didn't happen. They are going to be inundated by people who want to help," she said. "And it is impossible to do anything but put up your hands and say: 'I can't even think past 32 seconds from now.'"

But one of the perverse side effects of the rising number of mass shootings in America is the expansion of the support network for survivors. The circle of people affected by gun violence has grown. Jacob is now a member of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for gun control and maintains a network of survivors to help people who experience trauma like this. (She encouraged people to text "Orlando" to 64433 for help and resources.) The advocacy work has helped give purpose to her and other survivors, even more so as the country grows increasingly calloused to tragedies like the one she, and now individuals in Orlando, lived through.

"I'm surprised how in each one of these events -- as horrified as everyone in the country is -- three days later they go back to their lives," Jacob said. "Oftentimes, I don't think people know what to do. It is shocking and they don't know what to do. But it's become so commonplace that we watch it on the news and then turn it off and go to the latest graduation party."

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