Felicia Sanders’ voice faltered for a second when she spoke up inside a North Charleston courtroom on Friday afternoon.
“Every fiber in my body hurts,” she told 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who faces nine murder charges for a massacre inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night.
Sanders’ son Tywanza Sanders, a young college graduate, was one of nine African Americans killed in the attack.
“I’ll never be the same,” his mom said.
Magistrate James Gosnell allowed other family members of the slain victims to make short statements. Although their grief felt raw during that hearing, many of them extended forgiveness to the suspect, who listened remotely from the Charleston County jail.
“Me, I’m a work in progress,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, during her tearful testimony. Her sister, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, also died.
“I acknowledge that I’m very angry,” Middleton-Brown said.
On Charleston’s hot sidewalks, in its air-conditioned office buildings, in private homes and public parks and packed churches, the city cried with these families this week. Those who haven’t shed any tears are also angry— or just shocked, numb and profoundly sad. Those emotions are normal responses to a tragedy that will likely take the Lowcountry years to cope with, mental health experts said. The grieving process takes a long time.
Even now, 2½ years after a lone gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary and murdered 26 adults and children, dozens of residents call up the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Center every month to cope with the tragedy.
Melissa Glasser, coordinator of community recovery for Newtown-Sandy Hook, said their collective grief is “still in the infancy stage.”
“Resiliency is what we’re striving for so people can move on in their daily lives,” Glasser said. “Recovery, I guess, is subjective. It really is about finding your new normal.”
More than 600 people in the small Connecticut community have reached out to her team for help in the past year alone. Some of them face divorce. Others need substance abuse treatment. Many of their personal problems can be traced back to Dec. 14, 2012.
Other communities have grappled with this kind of grief before, too — Aurora, Boston, Oklahoma City, Blacksburg, to name a few. Charleston, now, finds itself on this grim list.
Experts urged Charlestonians to share their grief with each other and to talk to their children about the tragedy. The Medical University of South Carolina plans to organize some community groups soon for residents to discuss their feelings.
Retired Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis said he still routinely seeks counseling 16 years after two students killed 13 people on the Littleton, Colo., campus.
“It will never get back to normal,” DeAngelis said. “You have to redefine what normal is.”
Many people, he said, believed that they would wake up one day and everything would seem right again in Littleton.
“That day may never come,” DeAngelis said. “It’s not that you can’t move on, but it’s something that you learn to live with.”
Tom Olbrich, disaster response coordinator for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, just outside Denver, said the demand for grief counseling peaked 18 months after the Columbine High School massacre.
“A lot of times it doesn’t hit people until much later,” Olbrich said. “We have been through it. I don’t know if we have any wisdom, but we have some knowledge about the recovery process and it takes time and it takes a lot of patience to get through it.”
Connie Best, the director of adult services at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at MUSC, said the dates and times for the community meetings in Charleston haven’t been set yet.
“Talking about it, in general, helps people. That often will lessen their anxiety, their sadness,” Best said.
The community collectively feels “a huge loss of control,” she said, because we can’t make sense of what happened.
“What we find is usually the first few days, first few weeks, is the most stressful for the larger majority of people,” Best said. “Fortunately, most people, after an initial period of distress and feeling sad, do recover. Not everyone does, but most people do.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.