Today marks one year since a former student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and killed fourteen students and three staff members, giving rise to a new generation of activism. The date also marks eleven years since a former graduate student at Northern Illinois University (NIU) walked into a classroom at NIU and killed five students, devastating a community.
In the following excerpts from the book, If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, two mothers, Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed at Parkland in 2018, and Mary Kay Mace, whose daughter Ryanne was murdered at Northern Illinois in 2008, remember the moment they learned their daughters were gone.
Lori Alhadeff’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was one of the youngest students murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
I received a text message from my friend, and it said, “Shots fired at Stoneman Douglas High School, kids running and jumping the fence.” Immediately, I had this overwhelming sense of loss that came over my body. I quickly put my shoes on, and I went into my car, and drove as fast as I could to the school. There were all these people standing around, and kind of looking at each other. No one knew what to think.
A couple of minutes later, Alyssa’s best friend, Abby, came up to me, and I remember looking at Abby, and then looking at the space next to her. They were like twins, inseparable. A few minutes later, Abby received a text message, and that’s when I found out the worst news of my life. Somebody told Abby that Alyssa was shot. I fell to my knees and started screaming: “Why? No, not Alyssa.”
A police officer took me to what was called the Command Center at the Marriott in Parkland. I can remember being the only one there. It wasn’t even set up yet.
It was about 2 a.m. when someone finally called us into a room. They didn’t want to say it in front of me. They only wanted to tell my husband. I said, “No. Tell me.” He said that Alyssa was shot in the face so she was unrecognizable. It turned out not to be true.
We left there that night and the next morning I went to the Everglades, the closest place I could think to be with God, and asked him why he took Alyssa.
As I left, there was a big gleaming light in the sky. The sun was rising. I went to my mother’s house, and I got my mom. I told her that we were going to the medical examiner’s office, which was 45 minutes away from Parkland. When I got there, I told them I wanted to see my daughter, and they told me that I couldn’t see Alyssa. But, they brought me back an 8x10 color photo of Alyssa’s face, and that’s when I knew … with 100 percent certainty that Alyssa died.
I left there and went with my husband to the funeral home. We spent two hours planning Alyssa’s funeral. When we got to see Alyssa, I touched her and tried to warm her with my hands. She was so cold. I was trying to bring Alyssa back to life. I was looking at the places where she was shot. She was shot ten times: in the heart, in the femoral artery, in the head, and in the hand. She was shot in other places, too. I cut a piece of Alyssa’s hair off because I didn’t want the killer to take everything from me. I wanted to have something to remember Alyssa by.
Mary Kay Mace’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Ryanne, was the youngest of the five students killed in the Northern Illinois University shooting.
On Valentine’s Day, breaking news reported a shooting at our daughter’s college, Northern Illinois University (NIU). My husband, Eric, and I were at our respective workplaces when we received separate calls from other people telling us about it. After a couple of hours trying in vain to reach our daughter by phone, we met at home and hopped into the car for the one-hour trip to NIU. We drove along with an impatient, nervous energy, hoping with all our might that we were overreacting and she was safe.
When we were almost there, I told Eric to turn into the hospital we were about to pass. I’d suddenly realized that campus was probably locked down and that we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near it. There, we were able to ascertain that our daughter was not on the list of the wounded, but a police officer came to take us into a private office to ask for her physical description. They had one unidentified female fatality.
We described our daughter and the officer went back and forth between us and another room, where I imagined they had a sort of a command center set up. The unidentified victim had a tattoo. I kept saying, “No, no, that’s not her,” and I would get up to leave, insisting I had to go find her. I was certain my daughter had run for her life, leaving behind her cell phone and belongings, and that she was wandering around outside in a state of shock. I was determined to find her to keep her from freezing to death. But the officer kept persuading us to stay by telling us that we were in the right place to get the best information as they were able to piece it together.
After hours of this, I finally remembered another identifying detail: my daughter had a metal splint behind her two front incisors that had been left over from orthodontia. After relaying that info, the next person we were taken to see was a hospital chaplain. I realized what that likely meant and I felt like I’d been sucker punched in the stomach.
That’s when my head started spinning and my heart lodged in my throat. I kept saying over and over, “I don’t understand. How can this be happening?”
It took another couple of hours before we were told that this unidentified victim had been brought to the hospital and was now ready to be viewed. The coroner told us what we could expect to see and that we couldn’t touch her or even get too close. I listened, while steeling myself for what was about to happen. He was trying to prepare us for something no parent should ever have to do. His face, his voice, Eric’s hand in mine, all of it felt unreal, like a bad dream from which I would never wake. The coroner opened the door. My gut tightened. I could see instantly that my child was no longer lost, she was gone. My heart detonated.
Excerpted from If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, to be published by Skyhorse Publishing in August.
On this day of remembrance, please consider donating to:
Make Our Schools Safe, an organization focused on school safety, founded by Lori and Ilan Alhadeff, in honor of their daughter, Alyssa.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities.