When I met Mary Grace Giles two years ago, the Virginia Tech junior had just taken into her off-campus home two freshmen girls reeling from trauma: The freshmen lived in the same dorm where Cho Seung-Hui killed his first two victims in a shooting massacre on the Virginia Tech campus that left 32 students and teachers dead, 33 including Seung-Hui (who killed himself), more than 20 injured, and tens of thousands churning with grief.
Giles and about 175 other students had just attended a Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) service led by campus minister J.R. Foster in the War Memorial Chapel the night after the shootings. As we spoke outside, thousands were still packed onto the adjacent Drill Field for a candlelight vigil. "Right now, we're just literally crying out to God," Giles said that night.
Today, on the second anniversary of the brutal slayings, Giles is in North Carolina, where she works as an RUF intern on a small college campus. On the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., classes are cancelled and students will gather for memorial services and prayer meetings. RUF minister Foster says the mood on campus this year is a different one than last year: "a more hopeful one."
But he says students still struggle in different ways: "For some, they struggle with VT's innocence lost. For others, it's the struggle of a friend lost. For still others, they struggle with the guilt of feeling 'over' it, while their friends continue to mourn." Foster says he offers different students the same counsel: "I continue to point them to the Gospel, for it's God's remedy for the Fall's terrible implications in our world and in their lives."
Giles shares her reflections on the day she'll never forget:
It's hard being away from campus for the second anniversary of the shootings. I am soberly reminded by pictures and videos from the day of and those after that dark Monday in 2007. I look at those and emails from that time trying to take hold of something that I can sink my grasp into to remind me what it was like. It seems a bit twisted to want to go back to the darkest day of my life and feel those feelings again. I think I do that because that's one of the only ways it feels real to me. And I don't ever want to go on in life pretending that it didn't happen. If I did that, I would be wiping away the lives of 32 beloved peers.
I've struggled since that day, trying to field questions about "Were you there?" "Did you see anything?" "Did you know any of the people who died?" Questions that-to me-are filled with insensitivity. But they don't know. How do you ask about a tragedy that has changed so many lives forever? I surely would be dumbfounded. I need those questions. It helps me remember that these were shots heard around the world. It helps me keep remember that it was a very real part of my past, as well as a myriad of others.
There is a part of my life that has changed completely because of that day. When people in my church told me, "This is a wonderful opportunity to share with people the hope that you have," I didn't understand what hope it was that I was supposed to have. I spent the next several months pondering this. If my hope was that good was going to come from this, could there really ever be enough good to make up for the lives of 32 people? I answered, absolutely not. I eventually realized, however, that the God of Christianity offers a better hope: Himself. Today I look back to two years ago and ache in the depths of my soul. But now, there is a hope that accompanies that ache: the hope that one day, Christ will return and there will be no tears, pain, or death anymore.
I think about that day often. The way I think about it makes me sick to my stomach, because it doesn't make me sick to my stomach. There's a detachment that, for me, has to be there or I wouldn't be able to function. I feel as if there is a license that comes with [today]. That all my feelings about the shootings are taken more sensitively within that span of 24 hours. There is a freedom from the community, the nation, and the world, saying, "Today, it's OK to grieve. Today, it's OK if you can't give 100 percent."
So I force myself to drudge up my saddest feelings, because without that comfort and that assurance from everyone else, I can't be sure that they're aware of that part of my past; and they aren't sure that it still affects me if they don't see me struggle within those 24 hours. Tomorrow it's OK if my memories and accounts of that day are not detached. The rest of the 364 days of the year, I have to be detached or I will fall apart because of how often I'm asked to recount that day.
I wish I was less selfish in my grieving process. Too many times, my gut response to people asking about that day is, "Even if I tell you minute by minute what that day was for me, you'll never understand." But, they're trying to. And that's why I need to embrace opportunities to give them my story, like this one. And my personal experience on that tragic day pales in comparison to those who lost a loved one, and though our grieving processes are profoundly different, in both cases, the pain and grief are real.