After Surviving School Shooting, Parkland Survivor Leans on Faith: 'It's a Form of Therapy'

Greg Hanlon

It has been more than a year since the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Parkland, Fla.’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School claimed the lives of 17 students and staff members. But the emotional fallout hasn’t ended.

Recently, two students — 16-year-old Parkland sophomore Calvin Desir and 2018 graduate Sydney Aiello, 19 — have died by suicide, as did Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle was among the 26 people murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

To honor the memories of those lost and help raise awareness of the mental health issues that can linger after gun violence, PEOPLE spoke with six Parkland students about their experiences then and now.

Everyone deals with trauma differently. After a gunman killed 17 people at his school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Darian Williams evaded his grief by resorting to humor.

“I covered up with jokes because I didn’t understand how to process this stuff,” the affable 17-year-old junior at the Parkland, Florida, school tells PEOPLE.

Then came the funerals, and the reality hit home. After three, he stopped going to them because the pain was so overwhelming.

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Ultimately, he found an emotional anchor in his religious faith, something that had been part of his life since his childhood.

Williams says prayer enables him to sit with his emotions and process them in a healthy way. “I meditate with my Bible scriptures,” he says. “It’s a form of therapy.”

Darian Williams | Jeff Vespa/@portraits

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Religion grounds Williams, but not all of his friends have something that does. He sees them resorting to drugs, cutting themselves, or worse: He counts Calvin Desir as among the friends he lost because of the shooting.

He sees his fellow students struggling with their grief, and he knows how hard it is.

“I know that they’re trying their best but there’s no rulebook for it, and for me, I’m happy I have prayer,” he says. “For other people that’s not the case, and some people just don’t know how to handle it.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.