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When Mass Shootings Happen, How Survivors Learn To Cope

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The attack in San Bernardino that left 16 people dead, including the shooters, came just five days after the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Though these instances of mass gun violence involved different attackers with different motives, all such events leave behind witnesses who have to find a way to understand what they've seen and then move beyond it.

On this week's For the Record: the survivors. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with two people who lived through shootings that still haunt them.

Interview Highlights

Paul Temme of Prairie Village, Kan.

In April of last year, Paul Temme went to work out at the gym at the nearby Jewish Community Center. He pulled into the parking lot and started to collect his things to get out of the car.

"At that time I'd heard some loud banging and I didn't know what that was," he recalls. "It didn't frankly occur to me that it was a weapon."

Then he heard a woman call out that a man was shooting. Temme got out of the car and saw the shooter take the life of a 14-year-old boy Reat Underwood. Underwood's grandfather, William Corporon, had taken him to the JCC for a singing competition, when man named Frazier Glenn Cross Jr. shot and killed both of them.

Paul Temme ran back to his car to get his cell phone and he called the police.

"They asked me to report what I surmised what was the condition of the victims and what kind of assistance was needed," he says. "So I went back to the vehicle ... and I reported that at that time a young man had come out of the building and he was a medic. He came equipped with a knapsack and he was trying to pull the boy out of the vehicle and resuscitate him. It was around that time also that I'm afraid the mother arrived."

After answering questions from authorities, Temme went home. He doesn't remember a lot of details about what he did the day after the shooting.

"I haven't given this a lot of thought, but as I recall I went to the office," he says. "If it wasn't Monday I certainly went back to the office on Tuesday. But I didn't ... I wasn't motivated to stay at home."

While his coworkers reacted with sympathy, Temme says, "Truly if they asked me I wouldn't have answered, I wasn't going into it. And as I think you can probably already tell that even 18 months later, I'm not very forthcoming about it, I don't talk about it."

That day changed Temme and how he navigates his world. He says he watches news of other shootings obsessively, but worries about how his constant consumption will affect him.

"I do spend an inordinate amount of time staying up on it. It's hard I think," he says. "I sometimes think to myself I should completely stop reading the news. I should completely cut myself off."

But he doesn't cut himself off and he has decided that there is value in talking about what he witnessed.

"It's something that I think no one should have to experience. No one should have to see. And it's not something that I can describe and keep my composure," he says. "But at the same time I've sometimes thought that more of us should see this, more of us should see an episode like this and see the horror of it. Because it's appalling to me that there aren't more people crying out."

But he also tries to shift his focus by working with a local arts organization and advocating for disadvantaged kids in the court system. And he continues to look for the good.

"I have wonderful people in my life," he adds. "I see good things happen around me. You know, there's good things around us."

Sarah Bush, Eagle Mountain, Utah

Sarah Bush is 16 years out from the shooting that changed her life. She was a sophomore at Columbine High School in Colorado when the massacre happened.

"I still have nightmares, they don't haunt me as much as they used to and I'm sad to say I'm used to waking up feeling that fear," she says.

Now, she says every time there's news of another mass shooting the fear creeps in again.

"You know, when it will be in my home town again?" she says. "When will it be my kids at school?"

At 8 years, her oldest of five children is just old enough to start asking questions about news stories he hears people talking about.

"I don't shelter him but I also don't use the detail that an adult might use," she says. "I just say simply there was a bad guy that hurt a bunch of people."

Bush hasn't been alone through this. Her younger sister was also at Columbine on that day, and the experience has brought them closer together.

"We're still best friends, we live five minutes from each other. And every year on the anniversary of the shootings we get together and we'll do something fun," she says. "We'll go get a pedicure, we'll have a girls' night out, we'll stay at a hotel somewhere. But we always try to make it a positive experience to try and turn the karma of that day, turn it to something good instead of focusing on that one bad day."

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