SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – It was heartbreaking for Jennifer Berrones to explain to her 7-year-old daughter Kaylee that her friend and classmate Emily was not coming back to school after Sunday’s church massacre in rural Texas.
“At first my daughter didn’t understand what had happened. She asked me if Emily was sleeping and I had to tell her that she was never going to wake up,” said Berrones, 36, an assistant at Floresville South Elementary School where her daughter and Emily Garcia were in second grade. “I told my daughter that Emily is now with God in heaven.”
Floresville is about 11 miles (18 km) southwest of the small town of Sutherland Springs, where Devin Kelley opened fire on a Baptist congregation on Sunday, killing 26 people and wounding 20 in Texas’ deadliest mass shooting. Nine of the dead were children, including one unborn, Texas officials said on Wednesday.
Many of Sutherland Springs’ children go to school in Floresville, and no school was harder hit than Floresville South Elementary, which lost two students and had three wounded, according to Floresville’s school superintendent.
On the school’s Facebook page, smiling students wearing black T-shirts saying “Strength through Hope” in comic-book script put on defiant superhero poses next to their teachers.
But inside the school the mood has been grim.
“The first few days were rough. Teachers, students and the principal were crying,” Berrones said on Wednesday.
Schools have brought in counselors to help children and staff deal with the grief and trauma. Some students like Alison Gould, 17, have been unable to face going back to school.
“I have been taking it really hard. I am trying to get this sunk in. It is really hard to think that your best friend is gone,” said Gould, after her friend Haley Krueger, 16, was killed.
Floresville High School hosted a memorial service on Wednesday evening for the victims attended by Vice President Mike Pence.
It was part of a long and painful healing process for a group of tightly knit rural communities about 40 miles (64 km)southeast of San Antonio.
Sutherland Springs lost about 5 percent of its population of 400. The town’s children go to school in nearby communities.
The official release of the names of the dead on Wednesday changed rumors to facts and brought more pain, residents said.
“We may need more grief counselors,” Stockdale Independent School District Superintendent Daniel Fuller said.
Mary Beth Fisk, chief executive of the San Antonio-based Ecumenical Center, has brought about 20 counselors to Sutherland Springs.
“It will be a long process of recovery. Often people take one step forward and three steps back,” Fisk said.
Sandy Phillips knows that process. Her daughter Jessica was one of 12 people killed when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012.
Phillips set up a support group for survivors of mass shootings and plans to visit Sutherland Springs next week to help families.
“What they don’t understand is that their whole community has been damaged and traumatized,” said Phillips, who traveled to Las Vegas and Orlando in the wake of mass shootings in those cities.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Garza; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Grant McCool