Victim's Mother Finds Ways to Cope

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Holly Adams Sherman's daughter was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre. A year later, Sherman talks about how she's dealt with the grief, and what she's doing to honor her daughter's death.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, my thoughts on the first anniversary of our program., But first, an anniversary we all wish we were not observing. Earlier this month marked the first anniversary of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Thirty-two people were killed and many more injured before the gunman killed himself.

But in a way, counting the numbers makes it harder to see the individual loss each victim represented. Each person killed at Virginia Tech had a family that has had to find a way to cope with that loss. In November, we spoke with the mother of one of those victims, Holly Adams Sherman. She's the mother of Leslie Sherman, and her journey and that of her family coping with her daughter's sudden death was profiled by the Washington Post Magazine at that time. We wanted to update you on our story on Holly Adams Sherman. I'm very happy to have her join us here at our studio today. Welcome. Thank you for coming back to see us.

Ms. HOLLY ADAMS SHERMAN: (Mother of Virginia Tech Shooting Victim) Oh, you're welcome.

MARTIN: And I have to say I'm so sorry for your loss.

Ms. SHERMAN: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: It doesn't mean a lot, does it?

Ms. SHERMAN: Everybody has been very kind.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

Ms. SHERMAN: I think I'm doing better than even I expected. A lot of things have happened over the last year and a lot of improvements have been made on campuses as a result of this tragedy. In my case, Leslie's case, there's even - one of her professors from a history class included her in a chapter in his book. It's like a lot of things have kept on living and the only way I can describe it is that on April 16th of 2007, something was ripped from my heart that day. And little by little, there have been pieces of things that have come back into that emptiness and starting to fill it up again. Definitely not Leslie, but they are related and so, I'm finding that I'm doing fine.

I have a husband and a daughter. My husband seems to be, you know, the foundation, the rock in our family who's keeping the common-sense factor going. My second daughter, surviving daughter, is going to Virginia Tech and she has made it, knock on wood, she'll be making it through the end of her sophomore year and be home May 7th, hopefully with a report card that will allow her to stay in school. But she's had some struggles.

MARTIN: Was it hard to let her go?

Ms. SHERMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was afraid of any school, anywhere, any town U.S.A. But she's managed to, I think, not just be able to go there, knowing that her sister would have been there, but she has also, I believe, grown into a situation where she is now part of the school, not a part of the shadow of a sister. So, she's made her own friends. She's got her own groups that she's going to. She is a frat brother to a business major's fraternity and she's doing a lot of different activities that I think make her an individual and not a reflection of her sister. So, I think that it's going to work out OK. And then the better news is that I'm going to be a Hokie, too.

MARTIN: Get out of here.

Ms. SHERMAN: No, I'm not getting out of here. I've applied to the graduate school and was accepted. So I told my daughter, I said, guess what, I get to be a Hokie just like you. I get to dress like you, and I get to...

MARTIN: Go to all of your parties.

Ms. SHERMAN: And I can be your best friend. And she was so silent and all I could see was, I bet'cha she was wishing she was rolling around in pig mud rather than hear what I was saying to her.

MARTIN: Well, what made you want to do that?

Ms. SHERMAN: I don't know. I don't know. I just decided that you know, I want to keep busy and going back to school has always been something that I thought about. Well, I'm doing more than thinking, I'm doing acting. When you lose somebody, you realize that, you know, so many things you regret that you had done, that you didn't have time to. Well, I'm taking the time to do the things that I want to do, especially harmless things. There are a lot things that I'd like to do that are very harmful. This is one that is going to, I think, make - it would have made Leslie proud and it gets me a little closer to Lisa and my husband is absolutely an advocate for me doing something like that.

MARTIN: What are you going to study?

Ms. SHERMAN: Right now, I'm looking at the field of science and technology studies, which is a little bit more of a social studies of science and technology - future, past, present, what compromises the - or what composes a scientist, you know, where do they come from, what do they think, what kind of methods do they use, what are some of the challenges of the future. And so, it's almost like a liberal arts degree, but it does fall under the masters of science area. It sounds fascinating to me since I did that a little bit in my regular workday, anyway, so...

MARTIN: Are you still painting? When we last talked, you actually came in, you had paint on your hands and you shared some lovely canvases with us. We actually put some on our web site in really bold colors. Still doing that?

Ms. SHERMAN: Yeah. I've got paint on my hands today. I painted last night. I'm getting ready to display some of my work at the Clifton Home and Garden Show, which is the 14th and 15th of May. I'm going to have three paintings, large paintings that will reflect somewhere hidden in there is my daughter. And like I said, it's like a Where's Waldo, only it's in a way, where's weirdo? You know, I've got a little figure in each of the larger paintings that I'm doing and I'm also showing - hopefully, I'll have between 50 and 75 little mini-paintings that are just adorable little things that go on counters and sit on little easels, and like I said, that'll be the fourteenth and fifteenth in Clifton at the Hermitage.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Holly Adams Sherman. Her daughter, Leslie, was one of the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings last year. Holly, when we last visited with you, I think it had been about six months since your daughter was taken from you, and I have to say, I thought you were amazingly eloquent in describing what it was like to - just to be. What it was like just to be everyday, and we have a short clip of what you said. I'd just like to play it.

(Soundbite of Ms. Holly Adams Sherman)

Ms. SHERMAN: Emptiness. The emptiness. Thirty - thirty - I guess I'd have to say, 32, 31, 32 other sets of parents, you know, including Cho's parents, went through the very, very same thing. Thirty-three families got on the roller coaster that day, on April 16th, and we're stuck on this ride. The rest of the world got on the roller coaster, too, that day, but they got to get off. So, as the roller coaster just keeps going over and over and over again...

MARTIN: Are you still on that ride, do you think?

Ms. SHERMAN: We're on the ride. It stopped at the one-year point. We stayed on, and now we're going on it for a second time. I would liken it to a one-year-long roller coaster ride. Now we're going to start the second-year roller coaster ride, but the nice thing about the second year is we know we made it through the first year, and we can anticipate some of the bumps. I think the bumps will be less impacting because they're not going to be surprises.

For instance, a birthday is a bump. Christmas is a bump. Thanksgiving is a bump in the roller coaster ride. And we know now what to anticipate. It's not going to necessarily make it any easier, but at least we know we made it through the first, which would have been the hardest. The rest will be repetitive, and eventually, maybe we'll be sensitized, insensitized to it, but yes, it's still a roller coaster ride and new things do come up every day that you don't anticipate. Somebody making a comment that, you know, is a little out of school, or overhearing people talk about well, there's the lady who - with the tragedy that happened to her, or, you know, somebody will ask you a question.

One question that people ask, how many kids do you have? You know, people who don't know me. Well, how do you answer that? Well, I've come up with an answer. I say, I have two children, one deceased, you know. And then, of course, the look of oh my God, now I've really put my foot in my mouth, and they walk away. So what do you say? What do you do? How do you get around those things? These are all challenges and that is still new and evolving. I'm not sure that there is ever going to be an end to the vast number of different possibilities that can come up...

MARTIN: Sure. A friend's daughter gets married who might be the same age as your daughter and you're thinking, I'm never going to get to walk her - I'm never going to get to see her in that wedding dress. I'm never going to, you know, get to see her grandbaby. It's just, yeah, all of those things.

Ms. SHERMAN: That happened, though. My niece got married and at her wedding I cried and everyone thought, gee, Holly's so sentimental. That's not why I was crying. I was crying because I was crying for my loss and in a way, my daughter, my grandchildren, our future.

MARTIN: Is there something that the rest of us could do to ease your pain?

Ms. SHERMAN: Just don't forget them. My biggest fear is that I'm going to forget her face, forget her voice, enjoy life too much, which, of course, will make me feel guilty. It's like erasing her, and I'm so afraid we're going to erase her. We did manage to go through a couple of her boxes and get rid of some of her belongings. There's a long ways to go, but that was a start. Just the fear of forgetting and that's - I want everyone to remember, you know, the incident, and be more aware of their surroundings in the similar kind of a setting.

One of the things that I had written down that I would like to explore just for a second is that it's almost like you can predict these kinds of things happening if you have a certain set of circumstances. It all comes together in exactly the same way, similar to a thunderstorm or a tornado. If all these elements are present, there's a very good possibility that you're going to have a storm. Well, my little recipe for a storm is, you know, if you take one socially-challenged teenager, and in Cho's case, he wasn't a teenager, but I think maturity-wise he may have been considered in the teen stages. If you take, you know, socially-challenged, one emotional - emotionally, either chronologically or emotionally-challenged teen, one kind of poverty - excuse me, what did I write down? One bully, one - one, let's see...

MARTIN: We have about a minute left, Holly. You know what we could do...

Ms. SHERMAN: One twelve-pack.

MARTIN: Twelve-pack, is what?

Ms. SHERMAN: Of beer.

MARTIN: Beer.

Ms. SHERMAN: One car or one weapon, and you've got, you know, a combination of items that can be very, very harmful. What I'm worried about, of course, add one bully, you've got a lethal combo that could easily result in the same kind of massacre that occurred in both Illinois, most recently, and in Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. ..TEXT: MARTIN: If you like, we'd love to post your thoughts on our web site because we only have about 30 seconds left, but I just, I did want to just ask before we let you go, and I thank you again for being willing to come in and talk with us. Is there - do you feel that we're making progress though, perhaps, in thinking about the things that we need to do as a society to keep something like this from happening again?

Ms. SHERMAN: I don't know, and I'm going to put a little edge to my voice. I don't know. When they allow that gun dealer who sold guns on eBay, on the campus, to advertise his philosophy for promoting the sale of guns over, you know, sight-unseen, I said, I'm not sure our society is doing everything they can to keep from preventing something like this from happening. I'm not necessarily all for gun laws. I'm for weapon control, not gun control, not bow and arrow control. I'm for weapon control and for the prevention of having those on campus.

MARTIN: I see. Well, Holly, we thank you again for joining us and please feel free to send us additional thoughts and we'll post them. Holly Adams Sherman is the mother of Leslie Sherman. She was one of 32 victims whose lives were taken on the campus of Virginia Tech University last April. She's now going to be a Hokie herself, as is her other daughter Lisa.

Ms. SHERMAN: We'll learn the hokey-pokey.

MARTIN: Hokey-pokey, and she joined us here in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.

Ms. SHERMAN: Thank you.

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