Over two years ago, on February 14th, 2018, one of the deadliest school shootings took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and teachers. Among the lost was Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old who volunteered with special needs kids in her community. She also had a brother who attended the same school as her, and two parents who loved her.
Her father, Fred Guttenberg, has a new book called Find the Helpers: What 9/11 and Parkland Taught Me about Recovery, Purpose, and Hope which was released in September. I was able to speak with Fred about the grieving process, his new book, and how parents can work through their grief — finding strength within to help others along the way.
The Guttenberg family experienced an unspeakable tragedy, and as a country we mourned with them, aware that it could have been one of us. When tragedy hits, there is a grieving process that we work through, addressing the trauma of the experience. But for this family, Jaime’s death wasn’t the first trauma to address. Just months before the Parkland shooting, when Jaime’s life was stolen, the Guttenberg family were mourning the loss of Fred’s brother who died in 2017 from complications from cancer, a disease he battled due to being a first responder on 9/11.
Dealing with two back-to-back losses can destroy a person, but Fred was able to find the strength to pick up and push forward. It was the help of his community that picked him up in those first minutes, days, weeks, and months following Jaime’s murder. But he also discovered another way to channel his grief.
Fred shares, “During the planning for her funeral, the funeral director gave me a journal. He asked if I ever used a journal before and I never did, so I started writing. I wasn’t a writer before and learned how to tell how I was feeling. A few months after Jaime was killed, I decided I needed to tell my story — being a part of two American tragedies.” Thus, his journaling would turn into his book.
He also found a surprising ally in a fellow grieving father: now President-Elect Joe Biden. In the days which followed the Parkland shooting, Biden called Fred and left him a voicemail. In subsequent conversations, Biden spoke with Fred — the two fathers were able to talk about grief, as they had both experienced the loss of a child. In their conversations, Fred notes, “[H]e wanted to talk to us about our grieving process and our family. He wanted us to understand that people do not grieve the same way. He is a guy who understands.” Fred shares that Biden emphasized what had helped him personally, something that for Fred would become a mantra of sorts: mission and purpose, turning grief into action.
This is the work that Fred has committed to doing: allowing Jaime’s voice to lead his mission in his efforts to push for stricter gun laws. As the father of two children, Jaime and Jesse, Fred’s job as a father has not changed; he is showing up for his two kids and his family to help keep them safe. He envisions a world in which Jesse’s kids, Fred’s future grandchildren, will be safe and protected both in and out of school because of the laws he is fighting to change.
In the same spirit of helping, Fred was able to return the favor of Biden’s mentorship by becoming a campaign surrogate. “Fred is an important voice for the Biden-Harris ticket, constantly amplifying our policy work to a broad audience and ensuring issues around gun safety measures stay front and center,” Adrienne Elrod, director of Surrogate Strategy for the Biden campaign, told the Long Island Press. “He is always ready and willing to do the hard work, and is relentless in his pursuit to hold the Trump administration accountable at every turn.”
The grieving process, as Fred points out, looks different for everyone — and that is okay. “My grieving process has involved being on a mission to be there for others in a public way,” he shares. “For my wife, it’s been different; she does it in a much more private way. We are finding ways for us to do this, but in different ways.” We can all show one another compassion, share hope, and lift others in their time of grief. We can all provide a helping hand, as President-Elect Joe Biden did for Fred, and now, as Fred does for many others who are in need.
When we lose someone dear to our hearts, Fred reminds us, we are not alone. We can reach out to others for help, call on our friends, family, places of worship, neighbors, and strangers. There will be someone out there who is willing to help, to listen, to show up for you — like Fred. There are call centers like the Crisis Response Network who can be a resource too. You don’t have to grieve alone.
Fred Guttenberg’s world was shattered by the back-to-back deaths of his brother and his daughter, but he has channeled his sorrow into a fierce advocacy for much-needed change. Thanks to the support he received during every step of his grief journey, Fred is able to turn the senseless tragedy of Jaime’s death into a catalyst to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.