The last time I heard my son's voice was when he walked out the front door on his way to school. He called out one word in the darkness: "Bye."
It was April 20, 1999. Later that morning, at Columbine High School, my son Dylan and his friend Eric killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others before taking their own lives. Thirteen innocent people were killed, leaving their loved ones in a state of grief and trauma. Others sustained injuries, some resulting in disfigurement and permanent disability. But the enormity of the tragedy can't be measured only by the number of deaths and injuries that took place. There's no way to quantify the psychological damage of those who were in the school, or who took part in rescue or cleanup efforts. There's no way to assess the magnitude of a tragedy like Columbine, especially when it can be a blueprint for other shooters who go on to commit atrocities of their own. Columbine was a tidal wave, and when the crash ended, it would take years for the community and for society to comprehend its impact.
It has taken me years to try to accept my son's legacy. The cruel behavior that defined the end of his life showed me that he was a completely different person from the one I knew. Afterwards people asked, "How could you not know? What kind of a mother were you?" I still ask myself those same questions.
Before the shootings, I thought of myself as a good mom. Helping my children become caring, healthy, responsible adults was the most important role of my life. But the tragedy convinced me that I failed as a parent, and it's partially this sense of failure that brings me here today. Aside from his father, I was the one person who knew and loved Dylan the most. If anyone could have known what was happening, it should have been me, right? But I didn't know.
Today, I'm here to share the experience of what it's like to be the mother of someone who kills and hurts. For years after the tragedy, I combed through memories, trying to figure out exactly where I failed as a parent. But there are no simple answers. I can't give you any solutions. All I can do is share what I have learned.
When I talk to people who didn't know me before the shootings, I have three challenges to meet. First, when I walk into a room like this, I never know if someone there has experienced loss because of what my son did. I feel a need to acknowledge the suffering caused by a member of my family who isn't here to do it for himself. So first, with all of my heart, I'm sorry if my son has caused you pain.
The second challenge I have is that I must ask for understanding and even compassion when I talk about my son's death as a suicide. Two years before he died, he wrote on a piece of paper in a notebook that he was cutting himself. He said that he was in agony and wanted to get a gun so he could end his life. I didn't know about any of this until months after his death. When I talk about his death as a suicide, I'm not trying to downplay the viciousness he showed at the end of his life. I'm trying to understand how his suicidal thinking led to murder. After a lot of reading and talking with experts, I have come to believe that his involvement in the shootings was rooted not in his desire to kill but in his desire to die.
The third challenge I have when I talk about my son's murder-suicide is that I'm talking about mental health — excuse me — is that I'm talking about mental health, or brain health, as I prefer to call it, because it's more concrete. And in the same breath, I'm talking about violence. The last thing I want to do is to contribute to the misunderstanding that already exists around mental illness. Only a very small percent of those who have a mental illness are violent toward other people, but of those who die by suicide, it's estimated that about 75 to maybe more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental health condition of some kind. As you all know very well, our mental health care system is not equipped to help everyone, and not everyone with destructive thoughts fits the criteria for a specific diagnosis. Many who have ongoing feelings of fear or anger or hopelessness are never assessed or treated. Too often, they get our attention only if they reach a behavioral crisis. If estimates are correct that about one to two percent of all suicides involves the murder of another person, when suicide rates rise, as they are rising for some populations, the murder-suicide rates will rise as well.
I wanted to understand what was going on in Dylan's mind prior to his death, so I looked for answers from other survivors of suicide loss. I did research and volunteered to help with fund-raising events, and whenever I could, I talked with those who had survived their own suicidal crisis or attempt.
One of the most helpful conversations I had was with a coworker who overheard me talking to someone else in my office cubicle. She heard me say that Dylan could not have loved me if he could do something as horrible as he did. Later, when she found me alone, she apologized for overhearing that conversation, but told me that I was wrong. She said that when she was a young, single mother with three small children, she became severely depressed and was hospitalized to keep her safe. At the time, she was certain that her children would be better off if she died, so she had made a plan to end her life. She assured me that a mother's love was the strongest bond on Earth, and that she loved her children more than anything in the world, but because of her illness, she was sure that they would be better off without her.
What she said and what I've learned from others is that we do not make the so-called decision or choice to die by suicide in the same way that we choose what car to drive or where to go on a Saturday night. When someone is in an extremely suicidal state, they are in a stage four medical health emergency. Their thinking is impaired and they've lost access to tools of self-governance. Even though they can make a plan and act with logic, their sense of truth is distorted by a filter of pain through which they interpret their reality. Some people can be very good at hiding this state, and they often have good reasons for doing that. Many of us have suicidal thoughts at some point, but persistent, ongoing thoughts of suicide and devising a means to die are symptoms of pathology, and like many illnesses, the condition has to be recognized and treated before a life is lost.
But my son's death was not purely a suicide. It involved mass murder. I wanted to know how his suicidal thinking became homicidal. But research is sparse and there are no simple answers. Yes, he probably had ongoing depression. He had a personality that was perfectionistic and self-reliant, and that made him less likely to seek help from others. He had experienced triggering events at the school that left him feeling debased and humiliated and mad. And he had a complicated friendship with a boy who shared his feelings of rage and alienation, and who was seriously disturbed, controlling and homicidal. And on top of this period in his life of extreme vulnerability and fragility, Dylan found access to guns even though we'd never owned any in our home. It was appallingly easy for a 17-year-old boy to buy guns, both legally and illegally, without my permission or knowledge. And somehow, 17 years and many school shootings later, it's still appallingly easy.
What Dylan did that day broke my heart, and as trauma so often does, it took a toll on my body and on my mind. Two years after the shootings, I got breast cancer, and two years after that, I began to have mental health problems. On top of the constant, perpetual grief I was terrified that I would run into a family member of someone Dylan had killed, or be accosted by the press or by an angry citizen. I was afraid to turn on the news, afraid to hear myself being called a terrible parent or a disgusting person.
I started having panic attacks. The first bout started four years after the shootings, when I was getting ready for the depositions and would have to meet the victims' families face to face. The second round started six years after the shootings, when I was preparing to speak publicly about murder-suicide for the first time at a conference. Both episodes lasted several weeks. The attacks happened everywhere: in the hardware store, in my office, or even while reading a book in bed. My mind would suddenly lock into this spinning cycle of terror and no matter how I hard I tried to calm myself down or reason my way out of it, I couldn't do it. It felt as if my brain was trying to kill me, and then, being afraid of being afraid consumed all of my thoughts. That's when I learned firsthand what it feels like to have a malfunctioning mind, and that's when I truly became a brain health advocate. With therapy and medication and self-care, life eventually returned to whatever could be thought of as normal under the circumstances.
When I looked back on all that had happened, I could see that my son's spiral into dysfunction probably occurred over a period of about two years, plenty of time to get him help, if only someone had known that he needed help and known what to do.
Every time someone asks me, "How could you not have known?", it feels like a punch in the gut. It carries accusation and taps into my feelings of guilt that no matter how much therapy I've had I will never fully eradicate. But here's something I've learned: if love were enough to stop someone who is suicidal from hurting themselves, suicides would hardly ever happen. But love is not enough, and suicide is prevalent. It's the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 34, and 15 percent of American youth report having made a suicide plan in the last year. I've learned that no matter how much we want to believe we can, we cannot know or control everything our loved ones think and feel, and the stubborn belief that we are somehow different, that someone we love would never think of hurting themselves or someone else, can cause us to miss what's hidden in plain sight. And if worst case scenarios do come to pass, we'll have to learn to forgive ourselves for not knowing or for not asking the right questions or not finding the right treatment. We should always assume that someone we love may be suffering, regardless of what they say or how they act. We should listen with our whole being, without judgments, and without offering solutions.
I know that I will live with this tragedy, with these multiple tragedies, for the rest of my life. I know that in the minds of many, what I lost can't compare to what the other families lost. I know my struggle doesn't make theirs any easier. I know there are even some who think I don't have the right to any pain, but only to a life of permanent penance.
In the end what I know comes down to this: the tragic fact is that even the most vigilant and responsible of us may not be able to help, but for love's sake, we must never stop trying to know the unknowable.