Tanzina Vega: Another mass shooting, another workplace, another city, another American tragedy. Gun violence has become so pervasive in the United States and it takes both a physical and emotional toll. At this point, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn't been touched by it in some way, whether directly or through the experience of collective trauma and fear and often after the news cameras leave the scene, family and friends are left behind to deal with the toll of being a survivor. We're going to turn the mic over to two people who understand this reality better than most.
Sandy Phillips: I'm Sandy Phillips. I am the mother of Jessica Redfield Ghawi who was slaughtered in the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012.
Lonnie Phillips: My name is Lonnie Phillips. I'm the stepfather of Jessica Ghawi and husband of Sandy.
Tanzina: Sandy and Lonnie's 24-year-old daughter, Jessie was one of 12 people killed during the 2012 mass shooting inside of a century 16-movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. More than 70 other people were injured.
Sandy Phillips: She was vibrant. She was funny. She was smart. She was a word Smith. She was loving, caring. She was our world.
Tanzina: On the night of the shooting, Sandy says Jessie was being visited by a friend in Texas.
Sandy Phillips: He was there for one more night and she heard that there was a Batman opening premiere and knew that he loved Batman so she got online and tried to get tickets and they were all sold out, but my daughter was very tenacious. She didn't give up easily and she scored tickets to the 12:05 showing, which put them into theater nine instead of theater eight.
Tanzina: Theater nine was where the gunman entered the movie theater and started his rampage. Sandy had been texting with her daughter that night, shortly before the screening, about 30 minutes later, she got a phone call.
Sandy Phillips: My phone rang and I looked down and it was the person that she was at the movies with and I thought, that's weird. Why would he be calling me? They're at the movies. I took the phone call and I could hear screaming in the background and he proceeded to tell me there had been a shooting. I asked him if he was okay and he said, "I think I've been shot twice." I knew immediately that Jessie must be hurt badly because she would be calling me. I said, "Where's Jessie?" He said, "I tried" and I said, "Is she okay?" He said, "I tried" and I said, "Oh God, Brent, please tell me she's not dead," and started screaming, woke my husband up.
Lonnie Phillips: She was sliding down the wall, screaming Jessie's dead and in shock, I went to her and said, "You can't possibly know that" and she said, "Yes, I know that because I just talked to Brent." That moment, I knew that I no longer had a daughter and I would never have the same wife I had before I went to sleep.
Tanzina: In the immediate aftermath, Sandy said they felt numb and just didn't know where to turn. Nobody in their life had ever been through something like that before. Five months later, when 26 children and staff were killed at a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the couple decided to travel there from Texas and meet with some of the parents.
Sandy Phillips: I said to my husband, I said, "That's exactly what we looked like five months ago" and the horror and the disbelief and the shock that were on their faces, that look of not being able to comprehend that your life had been forever altered by gun violence just spoke to me in such a way that I knew that was what we were meant to do.
Tanzina: Since then, Sandy and Lonnie have been working to support people affected by gun violence.
Sandy Phillips: We formed Survivors Empowered because there was nobody there to help us and we just decided that maybe we're the people that can help. At first, it was just "We're here to hold your hand, let you cry, tell us about your loved one" and then it took on different layers.
Tanzina: According to Lonnie, they weren't politically active up until the Aurora shooting and they've even owned guns themselves.
Lonnie Phillips: We were oblivious. We were not political animals. We voted on presidential elections and that's about it. We were on with our lives like everybody else so we know the people that we're trying to reach because they are us. We were them.
Tanzina: Like the people they work with now, Sandy and Lonnie have relied on different tools like trauma-informed therapy and mindfulness to help them navigate both the immediate aftermath of their daughter's death, but also the retraumatization that follows including every time there's another mass shooting in the news.
Sandy Phillips: Gun violence is a ripple effect and what we're seeing happen now is so many stones have been tossed into this lake that the ripple effect is becoming a tsunami and sooner or later, it will get fixed because there are so many of us now that have been affected.
Tanzina: Gun control legislation at the federal level has been largely absent since the 1993 Brady bill. With Joe Biden in the White House and a Democrat control-Congress, coupled with dwindling power of the NRA, Sandy and Lonnie say they're hopeful things will change.
Lonnie Phillips: The time is now. It's a hashtag that was used. The time is now, we have a small window to get all of these bills that are stacked up on Mitch McConnell's desk over the past four years. We have a chance to get those through Congress.
Tanzina: Sandy and Lonnie said they would continue to help those who need their help. According to them, you don't move on from a tragedy like this. You move forward. For anyone listening who might need it, Sandy wanted to offer up this piece of advice.
Sandy Phillips: First, they need to be kind to themselves. There is such an expectation that we're supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and move on. Literally within the first year, you will have people saying, "That was a year ago. You need to get over this." That is the cruelest thing you could ever say to somebody who has lost somebody to gun violence because you don't get over it and you don't move like your life is okay again. It's never okay again. You just find coping mechanisms and those coping mechanisms can be either very helpful or very hurtful.
Tanzina: Sandy and Lonnie Phillips are founders of Survivors Empowered. You can learn more about the work they're doing at survivorsempowered.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.