For Celeste and Grafton Peterson, on April 16, 2007, the world as they knew it changed forever. That was the day their daughter — and only child — Erin was killed in the massacre at Virginia Tech.
Five years have passed since then, but time hasn’t dulled the pain or filled the holes in their hearts.
“Grief is forever,” said Celeste Peterson. “When you lose a child, you never come out of it. You just flow in life’s mainstream differently.”
A 2006 graduate of Westfield High, Erin was just 18 and in her freshman year at VT when a friend of Peterson’s who’d been watching the news on TV called her. Said Peterson: “She said, ‘There’s been a shooting at Virginia Tech — have you talked to Erin?’”
Both worried and scared, Peterson desperately tried reaching her daughter, to no avail. “I kept calling her and there was no answer,” she said. Her friend later called back and said the number of people shot had reached 20.
Before it was over, a mentally unstable student, Seung-Hui Cho, would kill 32 people and then take his own life. Most of the victims — including Erin and fellow Westfield grad Reema Samaha — were in Norris Hall. Erin and Reema were in French class there together.
“I had Erin’s password to get onto her computer to see what class she was in,” said Peterson. “I found out she was in Norris. I had a sinking feeling because I knew that, if Erin was all right, she would have called me or Grafton right away.”
Peterson saw a message posted on the school Web site at 9:26 a.m. that there’d been a “shooting incident” there. She and her husband were both at work, but immediately left and headed for VT. “I was praying,” said Peterson. “I knew something was really wrong, though.”
When they arrived, the scene was chaotic. “They sent the parents to the Inn at Virginia Tech and said there’d be information about our children, but there wasn’t any,” said Peterson. “Then they sent us to two hospitals [in case Erin was there].”
Returning to the inn, she said, “We were quickly hustled into a room filled with sheriffs and clergy. I think I saw Joe Samaha [Reema’s father] in another room or across the hall. They still didn’t have any information. My husband was focused on finding out where Erin was. I didn’t say anything to him, but I still hadn’t heard from her — and I knew.”
Erin had just gotten into a coed honors fraternity, Phi Sigma Pi, and her big brother from it stayed with the Petersons while they waited in the inn’s lobby with the other parents. At midnight, they were told the coroners wouldn’t be identifying any more bodies that night. “I wouldn’t have stopped,” said Peterson. “I would have worked all night, knowing parents were waiting to hear whether their children were dead or alive.”
The next morning, a state trooper who had a friend in common with Erin’s dad was there. “Grafton gave him a picture of Erin and said, ‘This is my baby; can you find her?’” said Peterson. “He came back after awhile, with some other people, and said the news wasn’t good. They told Grafton first and then came up to our room and told me.”
For her husband, it was the second time he’d lost a child. His first daughter died of cancer at age 8.
Peterson said what happened after they learned of Erin’s death is still foggy. She remembers people calling her from all over — and the bitter reality that her daughter was gone. Then came overwhelming sorrow that she discovered couldn’t be tempered by sharing it with her husband.
“Grief, to me, is individual,” she said. “You’re really inside your mind. Erin was our everything. And even though Grafton and I had loved the same child, we each grieved differently.”
Peterson couldn’t do shared grief counseling, either. “It’s too much pain in the room for me,” she said. “I couldn’t comfort others because I couldn’t comfort myself. I didn’t even find help in grief books; the best help was when I saw a therapist. I still see her once a month. Talking to her validated what I was feeling.”
She asked the therapist questions such as, “How long will this pain last?” There was no real answer to that one but, said Peterson, “She was motherly and made me feel comfortable. The first time, she hugged me afterward and it felt so good. You just wanted to have someone tell you it was going to be all right.”
For a long time after Erin’s death, said Peterson, “I didn’t know how I could go on. I wanted to be invisible. But people were here to help me, and I still have friends who stay pretty close. I could call them day or night and they’d listen to me — one friend especially; we cried together.”
Still, she said, “People desperately want me to say I’m all right. They want you back to you so that they can be better, too. When we lost Erin, it was like a bomb went off — and now we’re picking up the pieces, bit by bit. The shrapnel hurts other people, as well; but at first, you don’t realize that.”
Through it all, said Peterson, “Grafton and I leaned on each other for comfort. And not a day goes by that we don’t talk about Erin. We feel that she’s still here with us, but has just gone on the path we all have to go, ahead of us.” And that’s where faith comes in.
“You have to be rooted and grounded in Christ before you get to a tragic situation,” said Peterson. Then, if the worst happens, she said, “You’re part of a good church family that’s praying for you while you can’t pray for yourself.”
She also spoke to God in an effort to make some kind of sense out of something incomprehensible. “I didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “Did I not do those things He’d asked me to? You have a frank conversation, like a disagreement with your best friend.”
Peterson also considers herself blessed to have had her church, Mount Olive Baptist, plus her community, family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to help her work through her feelings and just be there to offer support. And she needed them all.
“In the beginning, the day-to-day living was hard,” she said. “But eventually, the holidays became the hardest, particularly Mother’s Day, Christmas and Thanksgiving. They meant a lot to Erin because our celebrations were a legacy she could pass on to her own children someday.”
Both thanksgiving and Christmas were shared with Erin’s extended family and, for the latter, the Petersons adorned their home with beautifully wrapped presents, Christmas trees and decorations in every room.
“It was really over the top,” said Peterson. “But we don’t put up a Christmas tree or decorations anymore. I threw all that stuff away.”
Also difficult for her, she said, is back-to-school time and “seeing commercials of kids getting packages from their parents, because that’s what we did for Erin. I can’t stand to watch them now.” Meanwhile, she prays and talks to God regularly.
“I believe he puts the right people in my life at exactly the right time,” said Peterson. “My faith is the most important thing that’s gotten me through. The world is a big bully, so you need to talk to someone bigger. When I ask God what His plan was [when Erin died], I hear Him ask me, ‘Where were you when I put the stars in the sky and created man?’”
Because God created man with free will, and not perfect, she said, “There’s been some evil. I believe what was unleashed that day happened because of free will. But God didn’t want it to happen — I know He wept, too.”
Still, Peterson sees God as the “benevolent father” and wants Him to use her to help others. “God sacrificed his only child and He’s able to still stand,” she said. “It’s because of Him that I can, too. I just hope Erin’s proud of me; I sometimes wish God would allow a phone call.”
But it eases her mind to picture Erin walking alongside her. “I feel her pressing up against me and I listen for her voice,” said Peterson. “And it’s comforting to know I’ll see her again in heaven.”
She said the tragedy seems like it happened yesterday, and the anniversary of her daughter’s death isn’t any worse than any other day. “Grafton and I buried our only child,” said Peterson. “I can’t imagine anything tougher.”