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Reflections on a tragic anniversary

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

With the anniversary approaching again, I thought back to the surreal events of Feb. 14, 2008, and one detail stands out in my mind: The way I tried to carry on with normal activities despite everything I’d seen that day.

It wasn’t until the next day that the reality of the tragedy truly struck me.

I was about as close to the mass shooting that occurred on the campus of Northern Illinois University six years ago as someone could be without actually being in Cole Hall.

I was working in the secondary teacher certification program in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at NIU. The side windows of my office in Zulauf Hall were about 50 feet from the back wall of the lecture hall where the gunman walked onto the stage and began firing into a room full of students.

From my office, I saw the NIU campus police officers first arriving on the scene and entering the glass doors in the back of Cole Hall with their guns drawn. Later, I saw the injured students taken from the building on stretchers.

I even had guns pointed at my chest at close range by police officers who thought I could be a threat as I attempted to make my way across campus to my car.

But even after all that, I still inexplicably stopped on my way home to have the oil in my car changed, as if it were just an ordinary day.

The next morning, when I read a news report that included Gayle Dubowski among the list of victims who died in the shooting is when things really hit home for me.

I had just spoken with Gayle at church the week before. I had known her father, Joe, since Gayle was a little girl. As I sat there weeping, I realized that those odds that you calculate in your head when something like this happens are meaningless (with more than 20,000 students at NIU and five victims killed, the chances were slim that someone close to me would be among those who died).

Over the next week ,I learned that a couple of my students were also deeply affected by the shooting. One of our student teachers that semester was Brittany Debrauwere. Her sister, Lauren, was critically injured in the shooting and Lauren’s boyfriend, Dan Parmenter, was killed trying to shield her from the bullets.

Another of my students was in the back of the lecture hall when the shooting started and had to flee for his life.

As I reflect on my actions that day, I think that I was desperately trying to cling to a sense of normalcy – to go about my business as if it were just an ordinary day … until that was no longer possible.

Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone said, “There is no normal life … just life.”

If a tragedy like this hasn’t touched you yet, thank God, or luck, or whatever higher power you believe in, but realize that down the road you may not be so fortunate.

One of the positives I remember from those weeks after the NIU shooting was receiving many phone calls, emails, cards, and other signs of genuine concern and support from people I knew, and even total strangers. That was a great help.

I guess what I take away now is that in the midst of tragedy, we have to very quickly get past, “I can’t believe this happened!” and get on to the much-needed endeavor of mourning and comforting and caring for others who are hurting.

We should follow the example of people like Joe Dubowski, who has used the tragic death of his daughter as the impetus to complete a degree in counseling so that he could help others deal with their own grief.

We are all just a moment away from this fragile life being over and we should work hard to find ways to connect with the people around us, during both the best and worst of times.

And it saddens me to realize that even now, this is much harder for me than it should be.

• Stephen Haberkorn writes for the Daily Chronicle. He can be contacted at news@daily-chronicle.com.

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