"It's never going to be the same as the life I used to have," Dylan Kraemer says

By Laura Barcella and Elaine Aradillas
April 27, 2019 11:59 AM

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.

On an otherwise ordinary day last winter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Dylan Kraemer, 18, remembers witnessing things he’ll never be able to unsee: six classmates killed from gunfire. “I was on the first floor of the building that got shot up, in room 1214,” he tells PEOPLE. “It was a History of the Holocaust class.”

Dylan Kraemer
Jeff Vespa/@portraits

In the aftermath of the massacre, there was no such thing as normal. Gripped by PTSD as he struggled to process everything he’d experienced, Kraemer’s grades began to suffer and he began missing school each week.

“For a couple of months I was in shock,” he says. “Once summer started, everything started to come down on me.”

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Though he switched schools before his senior year in an attempt to escape the gruesome memories, Kraemer’s grief is ongoing and he continues to see a therapist for PTSD. “In the mornings, I feel good that another day has started. Once it gets toward nighttime and I’m in my room alone, that’s when it feels dark and depressing,” Kraemer notes.

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An aspiring photographer, the teen uses his camera to help him cope — and slowly he’s fighting his way toward acceptance of his new reality. He even got a “1214” tattoo. “I try to normalize it as much as possible, but it’s never going to be the same as the life I used to have,” he admits.

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.