A letter to Aurora, from Virginia Tech: James Holmes does not define your city

You and I are bound together by the ties of similar tragedy and survival. It is easy to dwell on the horrendous events in our towns and to blame or hate. But such dwelling keeps us looking backward and can prevent our moving forward – as we must. I offer these suggestions.

Alex Brandon/AP
Family members hold each other at the memorial across from the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., July 25 where James Holmes allegedly shot and killed 12 and injured more than 50 people. Op-ed contributor Edward F.D. Spencer, vice president of student affairs at Virginia Tech during the 2007 shooting, tells residents of Aurora: '[K]eep in mind that one deranged person should not, cannot, and will not define your city. You will define your city.'

Dear Residents of Aurora,

When the tragedy of April 16, 2007 unfolded on the Virginia Tech campus I went from on-site facilitator with police, to convocation planner, to reassurer and consoler, to family liaison, to press conference participant, to conference speaker, and on and on into many unexpected roles in the days, months, and years following this horrific day. It was a day when 32 of our community members were killed and 17 injured.

When I awoke last Friday and heard of the tragic shootings in your city, my heart sank as I had so many flashbacks, but most important, as I thought about the victims’ families, the survivors, and each and every one of you.

You and I (and so many residents of Columbine, Blacksburg, DeKalb, Tucson, etc.) are bound together by the ties of similar tragedy and survival. It is easy for all of us to dwell on the horrendous outcome of the events in our towns and to engage in the seductive temptation to blame or to hate. But such dwelling keeps us looking backward and can prevent our moving forward as we should and as we must.

The very name “Aurora” refers to the Goddess of the Dawn and its meaning is “the dawn or rise of something.” So, I pray for you a rebirth like we, your brothers and sisters in tragedy, have experienced in our communities. I offer these suggestions.

Provide opportunities for your extended community to continue to come together, particularly in ecumenical ways, since what happens to some happens to all. Allow for personal compassion to weave a supportive web throughout your community. Call on your community’s counselors and ministers to help facilitate this.

Don’t be afraid to ask the surviving families about their needs, preferences, and opinions; they will want and need you to reach out. Be sensitive to the needs and wishes of the families of victims and also to the often different needs of the survivors and their families.

Keep in mind, too, that each person will react in his or her own way: What will be pleasing to one person may be repulsive to another. Grieving is a very individual process and can often be unpredictable. People need their time and space, so exercise calm and patience.

Expect the unexpected. Sometimes little, unexpected things will cause flashbacks and setbacks. This may be especially evident as you approach anniversaries (the first month, the first year, etc.) of the tragedy.

Remember, too, that your tragedy had primary victims and secondary victims, but that each of you, by virtue of your membership in a caring community, can be considered a victim as well. Remember to check on each other regularly and to reach out to one another.

Consider keeping a journal as a way to practice catharsis and reflection as the days go by.

Be ready for acts of deception and insensitivity, but also for incredible acts of compassion and support. Accept offers of help and remembrance.

We had certain members of the media during the hours after our tragedy who disguised themselves as medical personnel in an effort to get access to hospitalized students who were injured in our shootings. But in the opposite vein, we had hundreds of counselors who volunteered their services. And individuals from all over the world sent in contributions to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (which benefitted all of the families of victims and survivors), and many sent gifts for the families of victims.

Find ways to remember and honor the lives of the victims. Consider a fitting memorial accessible 24 hours a day as a place for all to come to contemplate and to learn.

Work with the Century Theatre staff on future use of the one theatre where the shooting took place. Might it be converted to a useful purpose (e.g., as a library and workshop space for the study of the influence of the media on human behavior) in the same way that space in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech was converted to the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention?

Put in place a diverse committee, including representation from the families of victims and survivors, which can coordinate all events and activities related to the tragedy and its aftermath and that can plan for an annual remembrance program.

Most important, keep in mind that one deranged person should not, cannot, and will not define your city. You will define your city. You will find that an exhilarating sense of community can and will arise from the ashes of this tragedy. Things will not be totally the same; they will be different in the sense of a “new normal.” But I believe you will not only prevail, you will experience a sense of rebirth and recommitment as you live out the meaning of “Aurora,” with the dawn of a new era.

I look forward to hearing about that in the months ahead.


Edward F. D. Spencer, Ph.D.

Blacksburg, Virginia

Edward Spencer retired from his position as vice president for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech following a 42-year career in student affairs administration.

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