Columbine, Aurora shooting survivors reflect on ‘new normal’

Two people who lived through the deadly shootings at Columbine and in Aurora offered advice to the survivors of the attack this week at the STEM school near Denver: You are never alone. It’s OK to grieve. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It will get better.

Zachary Cartaya, who survived the Columbine High School attack in Littleton in 1999, and Kaylan Bailey, who survived the massacre at the movie theater in Aurora in 2012, appeared on CNN’s “New Day” on Friday.

They gave their perspective about the latest school violence and how to cope with it. They also expressed their astonishment that mass shootings at schools are still occurring, 20 years after the Columbine attack.

The latest shooting this week at the STEM School Highlands Ranch, which occurred seven miles from Columbine High School, left one student dead and eight injured.

“I’m just absolutely distraught and heartbroken that this keeps happening in our country,” Cartaya said. “Not only our country but across our great state. Colorado should be known for so much more than what’s happening here because it’s such a great place to live.”

The shooting at Columbine High in Littleton on April 20, 1999, changed the way police responded to all the active shootings that followed. Twelve students and one teacher were slain by Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, who then killed themselves.

After the Columbine shooting, Cartaya said, there were “screams and cries of never again.” But 20 years later, the mass killings have continued, he said, citing the shooting at the Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Aurora movie theater massacre and a shooting at a high school in Colorado Springs.

“Too many more to mention. It keeps happening and it’s frustrating to almost a fault.”

Bailey — a teen at the time — was in a movie theater in Aurora when James Holmes opened fire there July 20, 2012, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others.

Holmes was found guilty on all 165 counts against him in connection with the massacre: 24 counts of first-degree murder, 140 counts of attempted murder and one count of possession or control of an explosive or incendiary device. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“It affects me and I’m sure it affects everybody else as well and it’s just the thought and the process of the fact that it does keep happening, and we have the power to control that and to stop it, and yet here we are,” she said.

“Another day has gone by, another shooting has gone by and it’s so normalized that we almost expect it and it’s not surprising when it happens anymore. That’s the tragedy of it.”

In their “New Day” appearance, Bailey and Cartaya were shown an interview of a boy at the STEM school calling on people to be strong, unite and forge ahead in life.

They were asked what the boy and other survivors need to know about coping in the aftermath of this trauma.

Bailey says survivors never have to tough out such an ordeal alone.

“There is always somebody,” she said. Even if someone can’t relate to your experience, she said, they “can definitely sit there and just listen to you.”

Being strong is admirable, she said.

“But I don’t want anyone to think that they have to be strong right away. It’s OK to grieve, It’s OK to hurt, It’s OK to feel lost, It’s OK to not even know what you’re feeling at all,” she said.

“You may just have days where you’re just upset, you’re just mad at the world and everything that everyone does is making you mad and upset. It may just be that you have to sit down and get in tune with yourself, you know, grow within yourself and definitely reach out to the people around you. Don’t try to fight this alone because that’s a dangerous game.”

Cartaya said the recovery process is “a marathon, not a race.”

“It’s going to take time and it’s ongoing. There is a new normal in their lives they’re going to have to adapt to and change,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t ever feel alone.”

Cartaya said eventually survivors start to adjust and they will see “light at the other end of the tunnel.”

“There are going to be some times when it gets better and you are going to relapse and recover, and continue to relapse and recover, but it’s going to get better.”