New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 25, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 08:26 a.m. HST, Jan 25, 2011
BLACKSBURG, Va. » In the parlance of trauma, Jerzy Nowak considers himself a "secondary victim." His wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a French teacher, was one of the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech here on April 16, 2007, by a crazed gunman who then killed himself in the worst campus shooting in American history.
The effects of that massacre linger, and they reverberate anew every time another gunman goes on another rampage, as one did this month in Tucson, Ariz.
Mental health experts say it generally takes two to five years for secondary victims — loved ones and survivors of such traumatic events — to "come to terms with new realities" and "reconstruct a new life." Nowak, 64, is nearing his fourth year, and he still does not use the word "recovery."
"You never recover," he said sadly the other day, in a thick Polish accent. "This is a myth. You just learn to live. Or adapt. This is a big word, 'recovery."'
The traditional stages of grief are achingly familiar by now, but like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each secondary victim and survivor travels involuntarily through those stages in his or her own way. Nowak agreed to talk about his experience in the hope that doing so might provide some solace and guidance for families and survivors in Tucson.
He grew up on a subsistence farm in communist Poland, and rose to become chairman of Virginia Tech's department of horticulture. After the shootings, he helped found the university's Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which was dedicated in 2008, and became its director.
His office is literally at the scene of the crime, or the major scene: in Norris Hall, the stone academic building where Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, slaughtered 30 people (he had already killed two others in a dormitory). In the second-floor classroom adjacent to Nowak's new office, Cho killed Couture-Nowak, a French Canadian who was 49, and 11 students, wounding six others during their French class. The carnage blocked the police from opening the door.
"It was very likely my wife was killed somewhere in this spot," Nowak said, looking down at the floor through the classroom door.
"It was very hard for me to come here" at first, he said. "I would come on soft knees" — he thought like his knees would give way. Now he no longer relives what he calls "the tragedy," but he often revisits it.
Planning the nonviolence center and transforming what he described as an "old, cold-war classroom" into a modern, light-filled space helped keep him distracted and busy.
Nowak was across campus on the day of the shooting and was not really sure where his wife was. Calls to her cell phone went unanswered. (The police would later report the haunting sound of cell phones ringing inside body bags as the dead were carried out.) She missed picking up their 12-year-old daughter, Sylvie, from school. At 12:30 a.m., about 15 hours after Couture-Nowak was killed, two university officials arrived at the Nowak house. The family had just moved there six weeks before, and Couture-Nowak, a charismatic woman who loved to cook, had been enjoying her new kitchen appliances and planning a garden. The officials confirmed Nowak's worst fear.
Later, he woke up Sylvie, embraced her and whispered the grim news in her ear. After a while, she told her father that there was a boy in her class whose mother had died of cancer two years before and that he was OK.
This father and daughter were starting fresh with each other; Couture-Nowak had been the glue holding the family together.
"There were just the two of us now, and we hardly knew each other," Nowak said. "So we had to build a relationship, and it was hard on both of us."
The first few days were overwhelming. His phone company proved a particular annoyance. The voice-mail box at home was full, but he could not remember the access code (Couture-Nowak, who managed the household and finances, was also the keeper of the codes), and it was a frustrating ordeal to retrieve it. The company also charged him for her cell phone for a few months after she was killed, but eventually sent a refund.
On the first day, they had 100 visitors. On the second day, he said, he finally fell apart as he pondered what lay ahead. In the near term, he had to decide whether Couture-Nowak should be cremated, which they had never discussed, and how to keep what he called "snooping journalists" away. In the long term, he worried about raising a daughter alone and keeping his job and whether, without his wife's income, he would have to sell their new house.
As family members began arriving from Canada — the Red Cross provided shuttle service from the airport — they helped with answering the phone, doing household chores and handling the news media.
More than 700 people came to the funeral, including a woman whom Nowak hardly knew. She began hovering in the Nowak house for 10 to 12 hours a day and sat in the family section at the funeral, though she was not a relative. She turned out to be a stalker. One day, while Nowak was cleaning the kitchen floor, the woman declared her love for him. He reported her to the police, then wrote to her, asking her to stay away, which she did.
At work, Nowak became stressed, having to manage his department at a time of budget cuts and collective mourning. He initially lost weight, but later gained it back — so much, in fact, that his wedding ring cut into his finger and he no longer wears it.
Couture-Nowak was a triathlete, and when her family came for the funeral, they brought a videotape of her winning a race in Nova Scotia. Sylvie told her father she wanted to train for a triathlon, too, and a few months later, she won her first meet for her age group, which was then 13. "When she crossed the line, she said, 'Dad, I wish Mom could see me,"' he said, tears in his eyes at the recollection.
His daughter still has recurring nightmares, he said, in which her mother is dying in front of her. "Having to imagine it may be worse than actually seeing it," Nowak said. He said that in his dreams, he constantly reassures his wife that she does not need to worry about him and Sylvie. In these dreams, his wife never speaks.
One development he did not expect was the support on campus for gun rights. The owner of the online company that sold Cho one of the guns he used spoke at Virginia Tech (university officials allowed it, but denounced his "insensitivity") and offered discounts to students, saying they needed to protect themselves. In addition, some students advocated on behalf of concealed-carry laws. Nowak said they bullied students who had joined a nonviolence club. "We lost half the members of the nonviolence club because they were afraid," he said.
When he heard about Tucson, he thought, "Oh, no, not again."
"It's hard for me to comprehend that someone who is mentally ill is not treated and is ignored by his peers and can buy guns," he said. "This is not an individual right; this is an individual crime."
The right, he said, is to safety.
Nowak works with at-risk youths, as he always has, and Sylvie now has her driver's license, but the past is hard to escape. They still receive calls and cards on Couture-Nowak's birthday and on the anniversary of the shootings. There are memorial services every year, lectures, dedications, tributes during football games, all drawing them back. A foundation for victims and survivors is seeking approval for a Virginia license plate that would say "In Remembrance, April 16, 2007."
"I have to ask not to receive these cards," Nowak said. "My daughter says, 'Why are they doing this to us, Dad? When will this be over? Why don't they let us live?"'