A few years ago, I attended a conference on how the media cover suicide. It’s where I met Sue Klebold.
In the months and years after April 20, 1999, I had frequently contacted the lawyers representing the parents of the Columbine gunmen, seeking to hear the story of life after Columbine from their points of view.
My requests were politely declined. Lawsuits were pending. People were grieving. No one was ready for that.
At that conference, Klebold spoke candidly of her son Dylan’s depression, the signs of his illness that she had failed to recognize, her monumental and haunting regrets, and the enormous challenge of communicating to everyone far and wide the seriousness of the threat of teen suicide and mental illness.
She said she accepted the fact that her son had participated in a horrible crime and that at his hands so many had suffered unspeakable loss, but she felt the need to talk about what she’d learned about Dylan as she pored through his diary and searched her memories for details about who he was.
For all of that openness and raw honesty, then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman criticized Klebold, ridiculing her appearances as irresponsible and inflammatory.
What they really were was brave. Klebold was saying what so many of us needed to hear.
Now another set of parents joins the ranks of the shocked, bewildered and grief-stricken — the parents of Sol Pais.
Pais is the high-school senior from Florida who terrorized the Denver area when she flew to town, purchased a gun and a box of ammunition, and apparently set out to create a horror show of her own a few days before the 20th anniversary of Columbine.
Her parents had reported her missing and were cooperating with law enforcement in the dragnet to find her. “She may have a mental problem,” her father said, and he described the situation all too accurately as “a nightmare.”
The terror ended when Pais killed herself near Echo Lake on Wednesday.
Alas, the nightmare continues.
Suicide rates are increasing in Colorado, and it is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24.
Depression has risen dramatically among teens, according to research at Johns Hopkins University.
And last year, the Washington Post reported that more than 226,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine.
These statistics cannot be dismissed as unrelated.
I don’t pretend to have a solution, convenient as that might be. The dual problems of untreated mental illness and readily accessible firearms have consumed years of public debate, and the death toll just keeps mounting. After every tragedy, we retreat to our corners and resume the shouting match.
But maybe that hostility only fuels the problem in this country.
In other countries, the reaction often is very different.
I attended the memorial for the victims in a school shooting in Erfurt, Germany in 2002, and I remain amazed by the very different response that community had to the appalling slaughter.
In what we now realize is common and utterly believable, the parents of the shooter released a statement saying they never saw evidence of his horribly troubled mind. They said they were heartbroken for all the victims and their families.
What was uncommon in Erfurt is that the community reached out to them in sympathy.
The governor of that German state told a huge crowd in the town plaza that “Erfurt must not become a synonym for a terrible, bloody act.” It should instead become a shining symbol of human kindness.
Another speaker called upon Germans to “defend ourselves against the brutalization of our culture,” to turn away from the “ruthlessness of everyday life.” And he offered profound condolences to all the victims, including the shooter’s parents.
“Whatever a human being has done, he remains a human being,” he said. “No one should be pushed aside.”
The generosity of spirit was stunning.
So, before we resume the contest for political points in the latest atrocity of mindless terror, before we focus on what our knee-jerk reaction will be this time, who we will blame and who we will demonize, let’s take a moment to think about Sol Pais and her parents.
Let’s dare to grieve the death of a troubled teenager all alone in a cold, snowy place far from home, facing a calamity of her own making, and so confused and desperate that she comes to believe that a brand-new shotgun is her only friend, her only way out.
Goodbye, Sol Pais. May you rest in peace.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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