School Nursing

The Relentless School Nurse: The Healing Journey (From Gun Violence) Continues…

Ted Zocco-Hochhalter is a Columbine parent and an emergency management expert. He is also my go-to person when it comes to school safety and the ripple effect of gun violence. I am posting Ted’s powerful blog post that describes his family’s complicated journey towards healing in the aftermath of Columbine. 


When Does Enough Become MORE Than Enough? – Ted Zocooo-Hochhalter

No, this blog post isn’t about the #Enough campaign to end gun violence, a hashtag phenomenon I see quite often on social media. Not even a little bit. It’s about something entirely different. Rather, it’s about when whole communities come to the aid of those affected by mass school shootings, and that aid gets to a point, at least in my own personal healing journey, where it’s simply MORE than enough and then some.
Robin Cogan, a friend of mine on Twitter, tagged me in one of her tweets asking me for my input on this article: New Study: After School Shootings, Well-Off Families Flee and Enrollment Drops. Low-Income Kids are Left to Confront the Aftermath. After having read it, I decided it might be better to just write a blog post about it, and so here we are.
The article’s primary focus is on people living in communities affected by mass school shootings and what happens in the aftermath as they struggle for their own survival which can sometimes also mean struggling with whether or not to stay in those communities. The article’s take on it appears to me to be that the more affluent can leave while those not as affluent are constrained to stay because of their circumstances. There’s a whole lot more to the article than just that, of course, but that’s the primary focus in a nutshell from my perspective. 

That being said, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story, though.

The author began the article with ‘Columbine’.

Screen Capture From the Article

As media is so often times inclined to do, they used Columbine as the start point in this article. It’s not surprising to me. Because my family was directly affected by the Columbine massacre, and because I eventually moved my family out of the Columbine community, I guess I can weigh in with some personal information and perspective related to the issue. 
The focus of this article is on families that leave their communities following a mass school shooting. I must say I’m honestly not sure how many families actually moved away immediately following this massacre. I do know many families acceded to their kids’ wishes to graduate from Columbine. Those parents may have moved away after their kids graduated, but I have no way of knowing that.

In my own personal case, I moved my family out of the Columbine community not too long after Anne Marie graduated from Columbine High School. Nathan wanted to graduate from Columbine, too. Although he wasn’t too happy about it, he had to commute to do so because of the move to Bailey, CO. He graduated from Columbine two years after Anne Marie.

Moving was a difficult decision for me, but I felt I had to make it. I’m pretty sure others who ‘could’ do a move after the massacre did so for any number of reasons, some similar to my own and others for completely different reasons. So, when studies like this come out and focus primarily on the financial capability of those who choose to relocate, it appears to me that it gives the impression finances play a singular role in those families wanting to do so and/or being able to do so. That’s my opinion, of course, but I believe it’s a valid opinion. To be clear, the article does also talk about some other issues than just affluence, or lack thereof. Those things just aren’t the primary focus.

I struggled with a lot of things following the Columbine massacre (as did so many others), but the singular thing that motivated me to move my family I remember most is that we were not doing for ourselves what we needed to do to heal and survive as a family. The Columbine community was, quite literally, doing for us what we should have been doing for ourselves. Because of that, I realized our mental, emotional, psychological, and physical well-being were in dire peril, and addressing those four life considerations became the prime motivating factors for the move. The fact we weren’t addressing them was the catalyst that pushed me to actually make the move.

I get that more affluent folks can often times do what less affluent folks can, and that those who are less affluent are often times constrained in considerations like those being discussed in the article. Thing is, I didn’t consider myself affluent. We were comfortable, but certainly not affluent as I understand the meaning of the word. The ‘affluent’ descriptor was something the media used to describe the Columbine community following the massacre. 
I also get that making a decision to uproot from everything familiar and comfortable and moving out of a community that has long been a huge portion of one’s life is an extremely difficult choice to have to make.

To be honest and blunt, there were quite a few in the Columbine community who were indignant with, and scornful of, me for quite awhile after I made the move. Things like “how could you move after everything that was done for you” kept coming up over and over. My feelings of guilt were palpable. My kids weren’t happy with me either. I quite literally had to shut those things out and do what I thought was best for my family because I believed we weren’t going to survive as a family if I didn’t do something drastic, and that’s what I did….I moved my family.

Following the massacre at Columbine High School our community and nation galvanized. They came together to help in the aftermath of this senseless massacre. This help would go on for months for some of us and would even stretch into a year, at least for my family. It was more than enough for many. It certainly was for me.

Help took many different forms. I can’t, and won’t, speak for any of the other families, but the help my family received went above and beyond anything I could ever have imagined it would, much less hope for. Things like meals brought to the hospital for visiting family and friends all the way through Anne Marie’s stay at Swedish Medical Center and Craig Hospital (April 20, 1999 through August 15, 1999 to help give some perspective). After her discharge from Craig, the meals would continue through the one year anniversary. They were brought to the hotel in which we stayed until our new house was ready. After we moved into our new home, the meals were brought there. There was so much, we eventually had to seek out storage in friend’s freezers to not let it go to waste. Looking back now, I should have donated the extra to shelters, to those in need of food. I wasn’t thinking clearly, though. My reluctance to even go grocery shopping following Carla’s suicide was based in fear – fear we would run out of food, fear of being confronted by curious shoppers who might recognize me and intrude on my privacy, fear if I donated food meant for us it would offend someone.

Donations kept pouring in, both monetary and other. The Home Builder’s Association took care of all costs associated with renovating our new home to accommodate Anne Marie’s disability. Sherry, our Victim’s Advocate, made sure we received everything Anne Marie would need like a stair glide, a lift from the garage into the house, etc., from the Victim Compensation Fund in Colorado. Offers were made from family and friends to ‘spell’ us in our vigil during Anne Marie’s hospital stay so we could get some much needed rest. Government agencies came to us, not the other way around, to offer assistance in sorting out the details of our response to this tragedy. Private organizations came to us, not the other way around, offering their assistance, their facilities, and their resources to help. Churches, pastors and parishioners came to us, not the other way around, offering their counseling, their help in any way we might be able to think of. My employer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, sent out a call for other Federal employees to consider donating their ‘use or lose’ annual leave so I could keep my job at full pay and still be able to take care of my family instead of having to go back to the office after my own sick leave and annual leave ran out. This single act allowed me to be a stay at home Dad and try to take care of my family’s needs for almost two full years at full pay.

The initial outpouring of generosity would go on well into the summer of 1999 during Anne Marie’s recovery in the Critical Care Unit and into her stay in the Multi-Trauma Unit and beyond. While it diminished slightly during her stay at Craig Hospital, it didn’t even come close to stopping. I’d never experienced anything like it! The caring, the giving – I couldn’t believe it.

After awhile, when we’d get asked what we needed or even what we’d like, we had no definitive answers. We really didn’t know what we needed or wanted. The fact is we were headed into uncharted territory for our family, as were so many others going through rehab at Craig Hospital. I’d sometimes look at those families; share their grief, their anxiety, and their hopes for the future for their injured family member. I’d look introspectively at all the help my family was getting and be even more thankful than I already was. I couldn’t imagine what those other families were going through. Would the assistance they received be enough?

While we were at Craig Hospital, I remember a young man going through rehab at Craig. He was from St. Louis. He’d been injured and paralyzed in a construction accident. We talked quite a lot about his situation. He told me about his efforts to work with his insurance provider and how difficult it was. I felt guilty because the insurance coverage for Anne Marie wasn’t even an issue. While I had to coordinate with the health insurance company, they took care of virtually everything. I didn’t see any paperwork. I didn’t have to sign anything. This young man, on the other hand, had to wage a constant battle to make sure he got the coverage he needed. Were we getting special treatment from our insurance provider because of Columbine? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is I felt sympathy for this young man. He was in his mid-twenties and had, through no fault of his own (same with Anne Marie and all the others affected by the Columbine massacre), been thrust into a future fraught with uncertainty, a future of new and difficult challenges. Why should we be treated any differently than him? The help we were receiving was of a magnitude completely outside our individual control. His situation helped me realize I’d eventually not only want to, but actually need to, do something to give back somehow some of the generosity our family received. We did some of that in a very small but incredibly rewarding way for everyone involved by engaging in something we called “Wood for Warmth”. I’ll write about that in another blog post at some point.

Editorials in the local papers, comments from their readership, and letters to the editors began taking another turn during all of this. Some said the families of the victims of Columbine, were receiving and asking for more. Some said they were sick and tired of hearing about this massacre and that the victim’s families needed to get over it and get on with their lives. Others quietly, and behind the scenes, continued their selfless efforts to help. It was becoming clear this event was having a serious and divisive effect on everyone, perhaps even as much, or even more so, than the event itself from what I was hearing and seeing.

The event, in other words, was the catalyst for results in the aftermath of the event that would have both a devastating and a healing effect, if that makes any sense at all.

I was offended at some of the things being said, to say the least. None of us had asked for this to happen to us. Why couldn’t people understand what we were going through? I just couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t equally sharing in our grief, our pain, our suffering. In reality, that was naïve of me. That was selfish of me. That was unrealistic of me. 
The generosity was so pervasive (in a positive way), so heartfelt, so caring, I began to get used to getting it, to begin taking it for granted so to speak. Taking advantage of all the good will certainly wasn’t something I wanted to do. It just happened, and I allowed it to happen. That’s when ‘enough’ actually became ‘more than enough’, although I didn’t grasp it at the time.

Katherine, on one of her home visits to work with Anne Marie, tossed the car keys to me after her session with Anne Marie was done, and told me we were going grocery shopping. She knew what was going on. She could see it. She felt it. She experienced it. She’d been a single Mom for 14 years raising two, and then three, kids of her own. She knew what was now being required of me as a single parent. She’d already gone through what I was now experiencing. She didn’t pull any punches about it either. I wasn’t accepting the fact I was now a single parent. I wasn’t taking full responsibility to take care of my family by doing for ourselves what others were so generously doing for us. I’d taken advantage of all the good will sent our way. I couldn’t bring myself to decline anything that was offered. 
My insecurities were tormenting me full force.

I told her I couldn’t do it. She told me it wasn’t an option, and we went.

Going through the store, I was actually fearful; fearful someone might recognize me and try to engage me in conversation about my family. That was the last thing I wanted to have happen. It didn’t happen. My anxiety was palpable, but unwarranted.

As we went from aisle to aisle putting things into the shopping cart, Katherine told me this was something I’d have to do from now on. I told her in what I thought was a kind of joking tone she shouldn’t expect the feminine side of me to come out. She scoffed at me, and rightfully so. This wasn’t something to be joking about. I was a single parent. I needed to take that very seriously, and be both parents for my kids.

The generosity continued, but at a slower pace. The meals eventually came to a stop. The person coordinating all of that was understandably exhausted, and had decided, rightfully so, it was time to let us fend for ourselves once again.

My kids grew distant. They spent virtually all their time in their rooms when at home. I installed an intercom system so we wouldn’t need to yell at each other when something was needed. That just contributed more to the isolation we were experiencing. It wasn’t even necessary, once the intercom was up and working, to even see each other face to face anymore.

Nathan got a part time job in addition to being in school. Anne Marie was in school part time. She volunteered to work in the school infirmary with the school nurse.

When the kids were attending to their activities, I spent my spare time in front of my computer screen, typing emails, communicating with family in other states, basically trying to impose my misery on them. I didn’t consciously realize that at the time, but it was most certainly a subconscious effort to get them to feel even more sorry for me than they already did.

I was feeling alone and so helpless. Self-pity wasn’t something I wanted to indulge in, but it was becoming a serious problem for me.

Anne Marie became unwilling to engage in many of the physical activities she needed to do to keep her in healthy physical condition not only to help prevent further debilitating conditions from developing, but to also hopefully be able to someday walk again. And, to be clear, not one of her doctors ruled out the possibility of her one day walking again…..not one! Pushing her to do the things she needed to do to stay physically healthy became problematic for me. Questions arose as to how hard should I push. Counsel I got from health experts universally said to push her hard. In addition, while she agreed to counseling and therapy for her mental and emotional well-being initially, she dropped it after our move to the mountains. I didn’t push the issue of continuing the counseling and therapy like I probably could have or even should have.

Nathan flatly refused professional counseling and therapy for himself. He took refuge in commiserating with his friends instead.

I sought help from a family therapist, but felt it wasn’t doing any good. All I was doing was talking and not really putting forth the effort I would need to in order to progress. So I dropped this therapy. Later, I would seek help from a licensed Psychologist. This, too, seemed ineffective to me. Again, I must take responsibility for not putting forth the effort I needed to in order to progress. I gave up on therapy thinking it should have done more for me, when, in reality, I should have been doing more for myself. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but true.

Even in my own personal fog, I began to see the downward spiral my family was in. I eventually realized I needed to do something drastic in order for my family to survive….hence, the move to Bailey.

When Katherine came into our lives, she did so at the request of another Columbine family who saw the downward spiral my family was in. She remembers the story I told above about the grocery store visit a bit differently than I told it.

My recall of the story you tell about the grocery store visit is a bit different than mine. Since you mentioned it I feel it is okay to speak to this event. While at your home for a session with Anne Marie I noticed her diet was consisting of a Costco size barrel of cheese puffs, soda, tootsie pops and McDonald’s fare when she could con Nathan and Jayson into picking it up for her. Given the amount of meals being brought to your family at the time and from what I had seen the great quality of the food I couldn’t understand why she was choosing junk! We had had more than one conversation with regard to the type of diet that was necessary for her body and it’s healing; foods high in protein, fibers for digestion, vitamin rich sources, etc., and the energy foods that would aid, not hinder her progress. The only explanation she offered was an emotion tug, if you will, to dismiss my repetition on the subject, “It’s not my mothers cooking”. I will admit this did back me up for a minute or two until I realized the ploy. When I asked her what her favorite meal was that her mother had prepared and she couldn’t think of one, I started to get the picture. When I asked her what she would eat she explained her father wasn’t doing any shopping and nothing in the house appealed to her. It was then that I handed her a piece of paper and a pen and asked her to make a list of groceries. She wrote a few items on the list; bologna, Kraft singles, some white bread. Nothing major but at least she was making an effort. It was then that I proceeded to the family room where you, Ted, were watching TV and asked you to take an inventory of the fridge and pantry to determine what might be needed. By the look on your face at the time I am pretty sure you were thinking either I was over stepping or losing it. You did however do what I had asked and added to the list Anne Marie had started. It was then that I handed you your shoes and explained I wasn’t going to do it for you but that I would accompany you to the store if you were not up to making the trip alone. Again judging by the look on your face at the time, while you agreed, you were not pleased. And by the way you did just fine. Having been a single parent myself for sometime your argument that it was all too hard and too much for one person to me seemed far from realistic, you were now a single parent and given all the bases that needed covering anything other than rising to the occasion was a waste of time. Oh, and the comment you made about “just don’t ask me to bring out my feminine side”, as I remember my response to you was along the lines of “I didn’t ask you to paint your toe nails and wear pantyhose.” Rather, it was to accept the dual role you would need to fill both as nurturing caregiver and father.

So, it was shoes she ‘tossed’ (just kidding) at me, not keys! Yeah, I deserved everything she threw at me, no getting around it. Like I said above, she saw things I basically chose not to see. She told it like it was. The thing is, everything she said helped me realize I wasn’t being honest with myself. She didn’t pull any punches, and, at the time, I guess maybe I did resent her honesty and candor a bit if I’m truly honest with myself. I had edginess, rawness about me back then that I can only hope has diminished with time.

She often times told me I was in a ‘comfort zone’, that my ‘protective mode’ was always on high alert. And, she was absolutely right. I even got pretty good at feeling sorry for myself, too. So, thank you, Katherine, for your honesty, your integrity, and your grittiness. Thank you, too, for loving me.

And I still ain’t gonna paint my toenails and wear pantyhose.
So, was the move to Bailey the best thing I could have done for my family? I guess that depends on one’s perspective. In the end, Anne Marie chose to estrange herself from my side of her family including Nathan. I suspect that outcome may have happened whether we stayed in Littleton or not. The details of why that happened aren’t something I will discuss in any forum. That, and many other things, have been difficult by anyone’s measure, to be sure. But we have survived, and we continue to strive for healing and the highest good of all.
The healing journey continues…..

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