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
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
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
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
Images of a Fateful Day
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
“It was instantaneous electricity,”
Vince says. “There was never an exception
to Jeremy’s rapid-fire sense of
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
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,”
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,
“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
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
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
“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,”
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
“We need to carry on Jeremy’s enthusiasm
for life by living our lives and
faith to the fullest,” notes his Aunt
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
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.