Virginia Tech mother reflects on shooting anniversary
As we approach the five-year anniversary of the shooting at Virginia Tech, The Times revisited one of the relatives of those killed, Celeste Peterson, 52, of Centreville, Va. who spoke with us five years ago. Peterson’s 18-year-old daughter Erin was among the 32 killed on April 16, 2007.
“I still cry, not as openly as I used to,” Peterson said in an interview. “But I never want to stop these tears, because Erin was worth it.”
Erin and the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had attended the same high school in Centreville. While most victims’ families reached legal settlements with the university the following year, the agreement allowed Virginia Tech to deny liability— something Peterson and her husband, Grafton, could not accept.
So they joined another victim’s parents and sued in civil court, arguing school officials could have saved lives by alerting students more quickly about the shooter. Last month, a jury found in the families’ favor and awarded each $4 million, which the state has attempted to cap at $100,000 each.
Can you start by telling us a little about Erin?
She was a very happy child. She had her grumpy moments. Generally, when she hit that teen thing, she was still happy. A very gregarious nature. She was finding herself. She was already there and she didn’t know it... I wanted to be around her because her view on things was totally different from mine, how she looked at things, and I loved that. Her friends characterized her lunch table as the UN. She played basketball, she was six-foot-one, people talked to her, she was a quiet mentor.
How has your life changed since the shooting?
Our lives are quiet in the house, quiet. The silence is deafening. Erin brought energy to the house. That part is not fun. Erin kind of set a course for us, what we were supposed to be doing and how. We’re still trying to figure that out.
When you have a child, your life turns around 180 degrees, and when you lose a child, it’s kind of the same thing. You can’t just go back. We still talk about Erin every day, and we’re still trying to figure that out. When she was alive, she defined us, and I loved being her mother.
My pregnancy with Erin was easy. Easy, easy easy. No morning sickness, slept like a champ, but big as a house. My morning sickness was those months after she died. I could feel something in me trying to work its way up. I’d tell Grafton here it comes, I’m going to cry. It was strange. But now I realize, I got that feeling when Erin died. That deep, deep pain. I still cry, not as openly as I used to. But I never want to stop these tears, because Erin was worth it.
Were you angry at Virginia Tech after the shooting?
For me, anger and grief could not reside in the same place. I could not say I was ever angry. When I thought about Virginia Tech, I only felt pain. It takes a lot of energy to carry anger, but grief is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, just clinging, hanging on.
Why did you sue the school?
We’d been meeting with the parents, and Grafton and I, we kind of knew early on that the direction we were going was different than them. We didn’t want to be pushed to a resolution. Do I think they did anything wrong intentionally? No. No one wants that many kids to lose their lives. They should have warned her earlier to give her a chance to make a decision. She might have still gone to class. But they didn’t even give her the option. Just because you feel safe, you still have a duty to warn.
Has the suit been resolved?
It’s about 90% resolved. There was a $100,000 cap on the award. The jurors had no idea about a cap so not only did they say that they thought Virginia Tech was wrong, they said they were $8 million wrong. That right there was extremely significant.
Did you become involved, as some families did, in trying to strengthen gun control laws?
That’s just not my platform.
What lessons do you hope the country learned from the shooting?
After our case was over with, there were students there from Radford [University], and they came up and said, “Mrs. Peterson, can we give you a hug? Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve ensured our safety.” I just wanted to cry, because that’s what Erin was all about—helping people. One after another they just kept coming up and thanking me for being strong. People have even called me courageous. I don’t feel that way. Grafton and I have always been like this—right is right and wrong is wrong.
What do you want people to do on the anniversary of the shooting? What should they remember?
My loss is extremely personal to me. However they decide to remember it, they can.
I don’t feel like my loss is shared or that anybody has any responsibility to share my loss, but when they do, I’m honored. There’s so much pain to go around…however they can get through it is up to them. When Erin died it was like a bomb went off for us and other people were hit by the shrapnel.
Do you plan to go to Virginia Tech campus or Blacksburg, Va., for the anniversary?
We’re not going down to Tech. It’s too painful for me. When we left five years ago with all of her stuff in tow, it wasn’t my intention that we would ever go back there. Right now it just represents pain for me.
Where will you be instead?
This will be the fifth time we will hold a gospel celebration of Erin’s life and legacy in or around the same time as the anniversary of Erin’s death. It’s just an extremely over-the-top celebration. We’re Christians, so it’s appropriate that this is how we recognize her life and examples she left behind for us. So that’s where we’re going to be at 4 p.m. Sunday, at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville.
What are you doing now to remember Erin?
I’m trying to do some of the things she would have been doing. After Erin died, I went through her room trying to find something that spoke to me, told me what to do.
I found a diary entry of her talking about how I knew how to laugh, and how she loved that. She’s the one who gave me my laugh back. I’ve had friends who told me afterward that they were afraid I wouldn’t smile or laugh again. Erin told me you’ve got things you’ve got to do. We’ve given away 41 scholarships to 31 people, and this year we’re going to go over $100,000 that we’ve given away.