Aalayah Eastmond, 17, was in Holocaust history class with Nick Dworet when he was killed. In testimony before Congress, she described him shielding her as bullets sprayed the room.
After the shooting, Eastmond poured her energy into the March for Our Lives student movement and traveled across the country with the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I spent the last year not worrying about my mental health, constantly working without taking a break to focus on myself and my school,” Eastmond told NBC News in a recent interview.
She doesn’t want to focus on the anniversary. “Everyone asks us how we’re doing and how we feel, but we have no idea,” she said.
Sam Deitsch turned 15 on the day she hid in a closet at Stoneman Douglas, after she saw other students flee the gunfire. Her birthday is now forever linked to that terror.
“I feel like I’ll always think of it as the shooting,” Deitsch, who is now a sophomore, said. “That’s not going to change for the rest of my life.”
The deadly shooting happened on Valentine’s Day. Several students and victims’ family members said pink heart-shaped items that appeared in drugstore aisles several weeks ago were an unwelcome reminder that the anniversary was coming.
Survivors before Parkland
When two students opened fire inside Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, Zach Cartaya, then a senior, hid in an office with dozens of terrified schoolmates. Over the next year, as he started college at the University of Northern Colorado, he turned to alcohol, torn with guilt over the death of Daniel Rohrbough, 15, whom he’d driven to school that day. On the first anniversary, when Cartaya returned to Columbine for a memorial, he said his primary emotion was fear.
“I remember being there, being OK, and then that heightened security and the police presence … left me terrified,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I a sitting duck? Is there a copycat out there?’”
For the first year, the 20th of every month was a reminder of the shooting.
Several Stoneman Douglas students and parents of victims said they, too, find the 14th of each month particularly difficult.
While the first year is the hardest for some, grief does not follow a timeline, according to Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, located at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in Los Angeles. The center helps schools and communities cope in the aftermath of tragedies. There is often an outpouring of support in the first year and at the first anniversary, but that dwindles over time.
Schonfeld added that it’s common for those who are mourning to mark the passage of each week or month — and each missed milestone.
“These are horrific, life-changing events, and as a result for those who are most deeply impacted, they might think about it every day,” Schonfeld said. “Any type of major event or transition period will remind people of loss. A lot of it is tied to the date.”
Cartaya, who in 2012 formed nonprofit The Rebels Project, based in Colorado, to support survivors of shootings, said that he eventually stopped counting the months, but April always looms in his mind.
“The entire month of April is hard for all of us,” he said. “For the MSD kids, February could be a bad month for them year after year after year.”
‘A year of firsts’
For Ryan Petty, all sense of time’s passage stopped when his youngest daughter Alaina, 14, a junior ROTC member who helped clean up homes after Hurricane Irma, was killed.
“One year is a marker for me and nothing else,” Petty said. “Every day, we live with the loss of Alaina.”
As the first year following the shooting comes to a close, Petty said he hopes one hurdle of the community’s grief will pass.
“It’s a year of firsts. Maybe there will be comfort in Feb. 14 that as we go beyond that day, that we won’t be dealing with the firsts,” Petty said. “I hope that’s true.”
Last weekend, Nick Dworet’s parents attended the dedication of a plaque, a tree and a bench in the memory of their son at the Coral Springs Aquatic Center — the place where he developed a passion for swimming.
The Dworets think about how, years from now, kids in the community will wait for their parents to pick them up at the center and will look up at the plaque hung on the sky blue walls, and ask, “Who was Nick Dworet?”
“You have this fear of like, ‘We can never forget him.’ Helping other kids get inspired by Nick … I think that makes you feel like we’re doing something,” Annika Dworet said.
On Feb. 14, the Dworets will go to the ocean, where they spread Nick’s ashes last year. Otherwise, they’re making few plans. They’ll take the day as it comes.