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The Virginia Tech Tragedy: How One Family Copes
By Mary Ellen Pelligrini
Jeremy Herbstritt, one of 32 people murdered at Virginia Tech in 2007, continues to be missed by his family. Their faith provides solace.

Q U I C K S C A N


PHOTO FROM THE HERBSTRITT FAMILY

A YEAR AGO we were an extended family largely unscathed by tragedy, a family that hadn’t confronted heart-wrenching loss. That’s no longer the case. April 16, 2007, altered our history in the most cold-blooded and irrevocable manner.

On that date, my nephew, Jeremy Herbstritt, became forever linked with 31 other victims in the deadliest school shooting in United States history. Sitting in Room 206 in Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall, Jeremy, a graduate student in civil engineering, was cut down by malice and disregard for human life.

For a family rooted in rural Americana, where “these things don’t happen,” the events of April 16 provided a cruel reality check: No one is immune from violence. Its effects extend far beyond a crime scene.

In this case of mass casualties, “the unexpected loss of so many promising young minds makes the tragedy more widespread and intense,” says Sister Pauline Dalpe, O.S.U., a licensed counselor with Catholic Charities Regional Agency in Youngstown, Ohio, who specializes in grief counseling.

Because there’s no road map for grief, the ensuing months have been a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward search for direction. Through the tears, laughter, anger, frustration and depression, our family’s perseverance and strong Catholic faith laid the foundation for healing.

Throughout our adult lives, my siblings and I had participated in prayer services for victims and families of other tragic events, donated to memorial funds, sent cards, prepared meals and assisted with various other needs.

To be on the receiving end of that support was surreal. It’s the proverbial nightmare from which you never awake. A friend, whose son disappeared while hiking, says you never think about the worst-case scenario. As April 16 unfolded, we didn’t.

“We expect that if we do our best, God should be protecting us from every bad thing in the world. That’s not what God promised to give us,” Sister Pauline says.

Throughout a constant flurry of phone calls that day, my siblings and I hashed out multiple possibilities while we prayed, waiting for news that Jeremy was O.K.

It never came.

In a world created by God, it’s hard to reconcile the presence of unabated evil. Gazing upon the cross in church every week reminds us of the depth of human brutality. But nothing prepares you to accept that truth on the most personal level.

Early on, when we were trying to make sense of the senseless, my sister-in-law and Jeremy’s aunt, Chris, said, “The pain was too fresh and all-encompassing to recognize God and believe that God was here.”

Today, the shock, denial and raw grief are slowly subsiding. Life goes on. In the past year, our extended family witnessed a high school graduation, two nieces’ marriages, a great-grandchild’s first birthday, announcement of a future great-grandchild’s imminent birth, job promotions and other positive milestones.

Each of these bittersweet transitions simultaneously invokes a measure of healing and reopens the wounds of April 16.

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Jeremy’s uncle and my brother, John, who can’t remember what he wore last Tuesday, vividly recalls the black pants, tan dress shirt and black tie he had on as he walked in his front door that Monday night and saw terror on his wife, Brenda’s, face. The living room clock read 6:20; the TV displayed images of a bloodied Virginia Tech student in shorts, being carried from a building.

Seeing media coverage for the first time that day, John says, “I was hoping Jeremy was one of the ones that made it to a hospital because I was trying to keep all other thoughts in the back of my mind.”

About 30 minutes earlier, I had finally connected with my sister Peg, who had been watching her daughter, Jennifer, run the Boston Marathon. One minute into the conversation, panic set in.

No one had heard from Jeremy in spite of countless calls to his cell phone. It would be another six hours before Peg and her husband, Mike, stranded in a Boston hotel room by a snowstorm, officially received confirmation that their son, Jeremy, had indeed been a victim.

Most family members last saw Jeremy at Thanksgiving 2006 at our mother’s home. Because he was returning to Virginia Tech—a quiet, peaceful community regarded as a safe sanctuary of learning—no one considered our customary good-bye to be the final hug or handshake.

Brenda last saw Jeremy in August 2006 when he stopped to visit on his way to the university. “I gave him a hug and told him to be careful. Jeremy said, ‘I’m always careful,’” Brenda recalls.

It’s unfathomable to picture young adults filled with faith and energy suddenly snuffed out. And Jeremy personified energy.

My sister Kathy and her husband, Jerry, fondly remember their nephew as a one-year-old running from one end of his home to the other. “He had that gleam in his eye and that smile on his face that you knew meant, ‘Look out, here I come!’

“That energy carried him throughout his entire life. No matter what he set out to accomplish, he did it full force and somehow got others caught up in the excitement of whatever he was doing,” says Kathy.

This is the Jeremy ingrained in our hearts. We don’t remember a statistic. We remember a young man who loved working on his family’s farm, attending Mass, participating in Boy Scouts, competing in 4-H fairs, running, hiking, kayaking, biking, skiing and getting together with his cousins.

Jeremy’s older cousins fondly recall the “cousin walks” that were part and parcel of the annual Fourth of July party held at their grandfather’s camp. Those treks down a quiet country road yielded endless jokes and anecdotes for the teens and preteens.

“We didn’t have a certain mission. We just wanted to hang out,” says Jeremy’s cousin Eric. “There are so many funny stories that won’t make sense to other people but they mean a lot to us,” adds Heather, another cousin.

The irony of this tragedy is that enrolling at Virginia Tech brought Jeremy a contentment and purpose which had previously eluded him. Prior to his move to Blacksburg, Jeremy earned two bachelor’s degrees at Penn State University—a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2003 and a B.S. in civil engineering in 2006.

Yet, like many people his age, Jeremy struggled to find his place in life. From the moment he set foot on Virginia Tech’s campus that summer, he was excited about his studies, his role as a teaching assistant and his future. He planned to pursue environmental work after receiving his master’s degree.

In addition to his studies, Jeremy was a member of the Knights of Columbus, Council 1314. During his undergrad years, Jeremy helped serve Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless, install new carpeting in the church rectory, move belongings for church members in need and numerous other projects.

Two years ago, Jeremy entered the Knights’ annual chili cook-off and, to his mother’s surprise and delight, won second-place honors. He also lived his faith by driving Virginia Tech’s foreign students to the grocery store, assisting an elderly neighbor with chores and chopping firewood for his paternal grandparents.

Losing Jeremy left his whole family emotionally numb and physically sick. His aunt and uncle, John and Brenda, say the traditional response of “God had a reason” provided little comfort when dealing with such an irrational event.

Jeremy is just one of 32 people who have equally compelling stories, whose passing is felt just as deeply by their own families. Because every relationship with the deceased and faith background is different, “One tragic death is not like another tragic death,” Sister Pauline says.

In our family’s case, we mourn the loss of varied connections to Jeremy. For Jeremy’s cousins Vince and Eric, it’s basketball and Wiffle Ball games, watching sports, playing cards and the annual Thanksgiving football game against their uncles. For Ryan, 17 years younger then Jeremy, it was being greeted by “Hey, Ryno!”—the nickname bestowed by his amiable cousin.

For my husband, Vince, and me, it’s a nephew’s visits on one of his road trips or college tours, often with friends in tow, or with his dad when buying livestock for their farm. There was never a dull moment when Jeremy landed and we thoroughly enjoyed those stopovers.

“It was instantaneous electricity,” Vince says. “There was never an exception to Jeremy’s rapid-fire sense of humor.”

Chuck and Chris, Jeremy’s aunt and uncle, miss the laughter that accompanies projects at the Herbstritt farm, Grandpa’s camp and their own property. When they were building their present house, Jeremy helped clear the property, install a vapor barrier in the basement and pour cement in the garage, basement and front porch.

“When we were clearing the land, Jeremy would lift and move an eight-foot tree trunk alone. He’d push wheelbarrows full of cement so heavy that the tire was almost flat. He did it all with enthusiasm and a sense of happiness to be helping. And all he’d accept in return was some pizza and a cold drink,” says Chris.

Overnight, the focus shifted from ongoing activities involving Jeremy to coping with memories.

“Grief is a journey we have to be willing to embrace,” Sister Pauline says. “One of the tools in navigating that journey is our faith and prayer life.”

While trying to soften the anguish of Peg, Mike and their children, prayer was a guiding force through uncertainty.

“It was difficult to know where the line was between helpfulness and being unwelcome, how to help without being in the way and not knowing whether little visits to say ‘hello’ and offer help were working,” John says.

“Calling, e-mailing and offering to run errands all seemed so insignificant in the face of such an enormous loss,” continues Chris.

Noting the integral role God plays in her marriage and family life, Chris says talking about God’s goodness and mercy proves easy when life poses few challenges. Trying to mention God’s love to grieving family members, however, proved futile.

“The obvious question is, ‘If God loves us, why did this happen? Where is God’s real comfort in the black hole of grief, depression and anxiety?’” Chris asks.

As the months have passed, John says, “Brenda and I came to realize that sometimes things don’t make sense and have no reason—at least, not any that will be revealed to us in this lifetime. In the end, not everything bad is God’s wrath nor is everything good God’s favor.”

Believing in God’s wisdom, Chuck says, “If we can truly trust God, we can handle whatever comes our way. I know that God has a plan for everyone. God can make good out of the worst situations.”

“I know that, someday, the immediate family will see God’s fingerprints all through these dark days in the hundreds of people who prayed, sent cards, brought food, visited, listened and cared,” Chris adds.

As one who never doubted God’s presence, Kathy finds comfort in meditation before Mass. A mural behind the altar in her parish church depicts the Holy Spirit directly above the crucifix with the Father above the Holy Spirit.

“I look at that and realize Jeremy has been taken into heaven and is watching over us. Because of my faith, I feel at peace. Knowing there is everlasting life and we will see our loved ones again helps me deal with death,” she says.

The biggest lesson for me came from a Sunday homily in which the priest spoke about the pain we inflict on one another by not living God’s commandments.

“If we want to have a better world, we have to be better people,” he stressed. “We each have to be an agent of change, follow Christ’s teachings and live the gospel values.” It’s a simple message which can yield powerful results.

Future tragedies can be averted only if each of us plays an active role. Ignoring warning signs of violence, refusing to follow experts’ recommendations for treatment, letting others fall through the cracks and turning a blind eye to festering problems inevitably inflict unintended and unimaginable pain.

Those who, in a moment of despair, wreak such havoc never consider the ramifications of their hate-filled actions. What they do may remove the physical presence of loved ones and cause paralyzing grief. But their victims will live on in ways as unique as they are.

At times, it’s hard to believe this tragedy occurred. Jeremy’s absence will always leave a void, just as lessons learned from his abbreviated life will always remain.

“We need to carry on Jeremy’s enthusiasm for life by living our lives and faith to the fullest,” notes his Aunt Kathy.

This year—and every year—Jeremy’s family is running, biking, skiing, volunteering and continuing family traditions as he would have wanted.

OFTEN PEOPLE who act violently have trouble controlling their feelings. They may have been hurt by others. Some think that making people fear them through violence or threats of violence will solve their problems or earn them respect.

People who behave violently lose respect. They find themselves isolated or disliked and they feel angry and frustrated.

The American Psychological Association lists the following warning signs for potentially violent behavior:

• loss of temper on a daily basis
• frequent physical fighting
• significant vandalism or property damage
• increased use of drugs or alcohol
• increase in high-risk behavior
• detailed plans to commit acts of violence
• announcing threats or plans for hurting others
• enjoying hurting animals
• carrying a weapon.

When you recognize these warning signs in someone else, there are things you can do. First of all, be safe. Don’t spend time alone with people who show warning signs. If possible, without putting yourself in danger, remove the person from the situation that’s setting him or her off.

Tell someone you trust about your concerns and ask for help. This could be a family member, guidance counselor, teacher, school psychologist, coach, clergy member, school resource officer or friend.

If you are worried about being a victim of violence, get someone in authority to protect you. Do not resort to violence or use a weapon to protect yourself.

The key to preventing violent behavior is asking an experienced professional for help. The most important thing to remember is not to go it alone.

Mary Ellen Pellegrini is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Exponent, the newspaper of the Youngstown, Ohio, Diocese. She also authored My Baby & Me: Growing Together From Pregnancy to First Year (CWLA Press). A resident of Girard, Ohio, she is married with three children and one grandchild.


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