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Dear survivors of the Parkland school shooting,

I’m thinking of you, unsure of what to say, fearful that I will say the wrong thing. The last three weeks have been hard: Two of your Parkland classmates, maybe your friends, ended their lives. I don’t want to lose you, too. So, I’m reaching out to offer my support, love and attention, and my hope that if you are now considering or have considered suicide, you understand there is help and hope.

I lost a high school friend and running competitor to suicide. Maybe ‘competitor’ is too strong a word: I shouldn’t consider myself a challenger to the man I’ll call Jimmy Sherman, who was a state champion in the mile. I got to know him mostly from afar, back in the pack. He led almost every race I saw him in, setting the pace for everyone else. I don’t know if he knew, but Jimmy was a hero in my mind.

When he took his life in our college years, I really felt the loss of leadership — to me, he had always been a champion in so much more than a race.

This country’s plague of school shootings has made it clear that all parents are connected, as our children’s fates are inextricably linked. As a parent, I can’t help but feel a connection to you, and I humbly reach out as a father who fears that the killer who took the lives of your friends is trying, insidiously, to take you as well. Suicide robs everyone of a chance at redemption. No matter what happens in our lives, we should have that opportunity to overcome.

You might not think you are strong, but your survival is a form of protection from this violence.

I want students, like you, who have survived school shootings, to know you are not at fault, and nor are you alone. You will struggle physically and emotionally. You should never have had to experience an event that took the lives of seventeen of your classmates. No one should. And it’s awkward to say, but your current feelings prove that you are normal. Research shows that what you went through last year has the potential to cause post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

It’s not surprising, only discouraging, to see the news of suicides increase around anniversaries of tragedies. I tend to think school shooters intend to kill not only in the moment, but also thereafter. Shooters want to torment and rob you and others of a chance at peace.

We need each other at this critical time. You might not think you are strong, but your survival is a form of protection from this violence. Living is the most forceful protest you can make against school shooters. If you think nothing, not even your life, matters any more, you’re wrong: Know that your living carries extraordinary meaning. You may not feel how strong you actually are; however, I am there for you, as you are there for me. We are in this together. Supporting each other is how we will get through these perilous times.

You may be asking, “Why not me? Why did I survive?” Survivor’s guilt is real. Questioning your existence is a lonely exercise. It can obscure the very real value your life holds for the people who care for you. Maybe you are a Jimmy Sherman to an Andre Perry somewhere, in some part of your life, and you don’t even know it. Let’s take the first step towards that future, together. Finding meaning from tragedy may be a cliché, but sometimes that’s all we have. Perhaps our next question can be, “How can we transform schools into safe spaces where all students feel that they belong?” Every child has the right to go to school in peace. You belong here, just as your friends belonged. And we can’t allow the shooter to take that from us.

You are not alone. We can get through this. You, your fallen friends and the friends you have yet to meet, deserve the kind of peace that we must all work together to find.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or the Crisis Text Line — text HOME to 741741 — are free, 24-hour services that can provide support, information and resources.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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