Families of nationwide mass shooting victims form community, learn coping skills
Seven family members and survivors of the Oct. 27 massacre joined together with those from Parkland, Columbine, Aurora, Las Vegas
It’s a community no one chose to be a part of, but the support members find from within it has been invaluable.
Earlier this month, families of victims and survivors of the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life building joined with those from nine other cities that have been terrorized by gun violence at the Healing Through Love Meditation Retreat in Barre, Massachusetts. The three-day mindfulness and meditation retreat, held at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, was the first gathering of its kind, aiming to provide survivors and victims with coping techniques to manage the continuing suffering they experience, as well as to connect them with others who are going through similar trauma.
The retreat brought seven survivors of the Pittsburgh massacre together with those from locations whose names are now inextricably linked to gun violence, including Parkland, Aurora, Las Vegas, Chicago and Columbine. A total of forty-three survivors were brought to the retreat, set in a forest about an hour and half from Boston, along with 12 therapists and meditation instructors.
“To meet with other families who had been through this made a huge difference,” said Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, one of the 11 people murdered in the Tree of Life building. “You wanted to connect with them.”
The retreat was fully funded for all participants, including airfare, lodging and food, underwritten by the Hemera Foundation. All therapists and instructors volunteered their services.
Conceived of by Sharon Salzberg, one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, along with Shelly Tygielski, a mindfulness instructor in Broward County, Florida, who has been providing help to those affected by the February 2018 shootings in Parkland, the retreat aimed to “offer tools that people might use for greater healing and resilience,” said Salzberg, who has been teaching meditation for 45 years.
The retreat originally was conceived to provide training for Parkland survivors, but after a contingent of those survivors came to visit Pittsburgh in April 2019, they suggested Pittsburgh survivors be included. Once Pittsburghers were included, survivors from other shootings were invited as well, according to Tygielski.
Leigh Stein was on board as soon as she heard about the retreat, viewing it as “a chance to learn helpful tools and surround myself with others that understood my thoughts in a peaceful and calm environment — without even saying one word.”
“It was exactly what I needed and could not have come at a better time, just days after the El Paso and Dayton shootings,” said Stein, whose father, Dan Stein, was murdered in the attack at the Tree of Life building. “It was comforting to be in the company of others that just ‘get it’ and are unfortunately in my shoes.”
Stein’s mother, Sharyn Stein, also attended the retreat.
“I needed to go because this community is wonderful and supportive and loving and kind, but it is very difficult to go out to the streets of Squirrel Hill and have it with you constantly,” she explained. “I just needed a break. I just needed to go and have peace and quiet and not rely on people I knew, and I felt the people I met were so amazing and gave me so much strength, and that was a tremendous positive. It was good for me to get away.”
Giving survivors a chance to get away to a beautiful and peaceful environment, along with others who understand their pain, was one of the aims of the retreat, according to Tygielski.
“We thought it would be really great to get people out of their element and really feel like they are in a safe container, that they are removed from their day-to-day environment for several days and, more importantly, that they are around people that they don’t have to wear a mask around,” she said. “And they don’t have to explain anything because everybody that’s there understands their story, the language of loss, the depth of their grief.”
Being with others who had experienced trauma similar to hers was comforting, and also “gave hope” to Ellen Leger, whose husband Dan Leger was shot and seriously injured at the Tree of Life building. “They can pass down information,” Leger said. “Like one girl from Las Vegas, she kept telling us from the beginning, ‘You are coming up to your one-year anniversary, be ready for it, it’s going to be terrible, it’s going to be difficult but you are going to get through it,’ because she just went through it. There is nobody else out there who can say that to us and really know. These people really get it, and they understand the ups and downs.”
Mindfulness and meditation sessions at the retreat offered “practical tools that people can take home with them and continue to practice,” Tygielski said.
Fienberg has already been using some of the breathing exercises she learned at the retreat in dealing with insensitive questions and comments from people.
“People say things, and they totally don’t intend to, but they are not nice,” she said. “They don’t mean to, they are just being curious. But we are not the people to be curious with, we are the family members. What they have found is, if you have tools to help you calm down and relax and take a breath and see the intention of the question, you will have a better experience, that person will be answered, or if you need to tell them to back off, you can do that as well.”
Sharyn Stein is also utilizing some of the techniques she learned in Barre as the one-year remembrance of Oct. 27 approaches.
“As the time gets closer, there is a lot going on, and I find that I am just falling apart,” she said. “And I take myself back to Barre, Massachusetts, and say, OK, just use those breathing techniques. Try.”
The retreat was non-religious, and non-political.
In addition to survivors of mass shootings, five women from Chicago whose sons had been killed by guns in isolated events were invited as well. Part of a group called Purpose Over Pain, the Chicago mothers were sponsored by the Obama Foundation.
“They were able to bring a completely different perspective,” noted Tygielski.
Several Pittsburgh participants mentioned connecting deeply with some of the mothers from Chicago, and noted that regardless of the circumstances surrounding the killing of a loved one, the grief is acute.
“Some of those women from Chicago had sons killed by police officers,” noted Dan Leger, “and there was a woman on the other side of the room whose husband was a police officer who was killed during a drug interaction, trying to make an arrest. And here they are.”
Dan Leger was reluctant at first to attend the retreat, he said, but ultimately found the experience to be profound.
“My reluctance was because, first of all, trust is a factor that has been tampered with here, and so really trying to make sure that anything that is offered to us as victims is something that is trustworthy is sometimes hard to distinguish,” he said. “Many people offer things to us that are really ways for them to feel better than to genuinely make us feel better. And they are not aware of that, but it becomes a burden in some way. Then, there are other people who, might plainly, want to just take advantage of us, and so that was my reluctance.”
Additionally, because of his injuries, “the idea of leaving town, getting on an airplane, physically is not something that is pleasant for me,” he added.
But the program “gave everybody enough space so that quiet that permeated some of the exercises just really gave that opportunity for people to either go to the place that they needed to resolve — such as in my case some of those dark places — or to go to a place where they were in touch with how far they had come or wherever they needed to travel. It was a great gift.
“I felt grateful to be there,” he added. “The kindness of strangers never ceases to be just so heartwarmingly present, the generosity and the kindness.”
Maggie Feinstein, director of the newly created Pittsburgh Resiliency Center, also attended the retreat “as a learner,” she said.
“I am interested in these peer networks, what do we do to strengthen them, what is the right dynamic, what are the ones that are healing versus maybe damaging to certain people,” she said.
Tygielski and Salzberg are already working on securing funding to hold another retreat next year, as, tragically, there is no shortage of family members of gun violence victims. Tygielski also hopes to work with Feinstein and the Resiliency Center, sharing best practices and helping to find local resources in Pittsburgh for those still processing the trauma.
“That’s the intent, to create a sort of playbook, if you will, because there is no playbook for something like this where at the very least we can say, ‘here is a menu of things we have done that have worked and have resonated with people,’ and vice versa of course,” Tygielski said. “And there will be things that you all do that will probably be helpful and instrumental here.”
Being with survivors of other mass shootings, Ellen Leger realized how fortunate the Pittsburgh group is to have such widespread and meaningful support.
“The woman from Columbine, she said after it happened, there was nothing for her, it was just sort of ‘get on with your life,’” Ellen Leger said. “We have had such phenomenal support from minute one, from everybody in the Jewish community, the Pittsburgh community. People have gone through similar experiences with none of that, and still they manage to get from one day to the next.”
Although Fienberg “didn’t want to be part of this group,” she said she is “very grateful that there are people looking out for us and thinking about how we help each other, and I am very hopeful that in the future I can return that and pay it forward as well.”
Sharyn and Leigh Stein have already been corresponding with people they met at the retreat, drawing strength from one another.
“I met amazing people, and we really have a bond, and it’s helpful,” said Sharyn Stein.
Her daughter, Leigh, considers her Barre friends her “meditation mishpacha.”
“I feel like I have known these people forever,” Leigh Stein said. “Everyone instantly bonded. Unfortunately we are all in the same boat. We have all been affected by gun violence.
“I am now in a ‘group,’” she continued. “A group that I would give anything to get out of but I can’t. I am stuck in this group for the rest of my life. Only other members of this group understand. That powerful connection was what meant the most to me during my time in Barre. In a world that can make us feel so isolated and misunderstood connecting with others that ‘get it’ is life-giving.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at