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Newtown survivors, choose faith, charity and hope

By Liz Carlston, Special to CNN
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1428 GMT (2228 HKT)
Mourners wipe tears away as they file out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the funeral of Emilie Parker in Ogden, Utah, on Saturday, December 22. Mourners wipe tears away as they file out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the funeral of Emilie Parker in Ogden, Utah, on Saturday, December 22.
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Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
Newtown funerals: Community says goodbye
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Liz Carlston: My heart aches for the children and parents at Sandy Hook
  • Carlston: I went through the Columbine shooting and know the pain
  • She says life won't be the same for the survivors; it's important to push out the anger
  • Carlston: Choose faith, choose charity, choose hope; then, life will be livable again

Editor's note: Liz Carlston is the author of "Surviving Columbine: How Faith Helps Us Heal When Tragedy Strikes." She is compiling a book with other Columbine survivors for the students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If you'd like to help with the project, you can contact her at: carlston33@yahoo.com.

(CNN) -- My heart aches for the children, parents and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Like them, I know what it means to have life turned on its head by unprecedented violence. On the morning of April 20, 1999, two senior students walked into Columbine High School and began a shooting spree. Someone pulled the fire alarm and I was able to escape my trigonometry classroom. While I didn't suffer any injury, people I knew and admired were killed. That awful day left a permanent scar on our community in Littleton, Colorado.

But the Columbine shooting did not define us. We are defined by the acts of goodness that followed. People in our community bonded and helped each other get through the tragedy.

Liz Carlston
Liz Carlston

Hundreds of comfort quilts were sewed and handed out to those who were trying to recover from the anguish and pain. Restaurants provided free meals in the days after the shooting. Strangers offered hugs to each other at the Clement Park Memorial for support.

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No one ever should experience a Columbine moment. No one wants to feel assaulted, offended or hurt by an inexplicable event. But sometimes, those things happen.

The way we respond to those moments is crucial in how we build and rebuild our relationships, and more importantly, how we rebuild our lives.

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There are two ways we can respond to a traumatic experience -- as a victim or a survivor. Early on, I pitifully used Columbine to justify personal failures and shortcomings. Eventually, I realized that I owned the way I reacted to situations and how I engaged with those around me.

More than a decade later, I still think about Columbine. I do not dwell on the grotesque details of the day. In quiet meditation, I think of the lives that were taken and the lessons that help me move forward. I appreciate the subtle and profound consequences that our thoughts and actions can have on others. I became slower to anger and quicker to love. The inconsiderate driver or long line at the post office doesn't spoil my day anymore.

I share my story to offer hope to those impacted by violence -- those who wonder whether they'll be able to regain the life they once knew. The answer is no. Life won't be the same. But one can, over time, find happiness. When you are able to come out of a tragedy you'll be stronger with a greater capacity to love, more determination to serve others and desire to mend broken family ties. And you'll feel joy that comes from these actions.

To those who are wading through a mountain of pain and sorrow right now, please know that it will be OK. Take time to grieve your loss. Talk through your feelings, even if it's no more than ramblings. Live your life in a way that honors the memory of the precious lives that were taken. Push out the anger and fill your mind with a positive outlook. I promise this approach will bring more peace and joy.

There may be some people who are angry at God. I was not. In Columbine's aftermath, my faith was an essential part of my healing process. There's a scripture passage that I take comfort in:

Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, the design of your God concerning those things which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings.

I believe in God and trust that He has a plan for our lives. His added measure of strength always comes at the moment when we've exhausted our best effort. When tragedies like Columbine or Sandy Hook happen, we are reminded of the fragility and precious nature of life. This gives rise to the question, what will you do with the time you have?

Choose faith, choose charity, choose hope. Then, life will be livable again.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Liz Carlston.

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