Parkland Shooting Survivor Discusses the Lessons He's Learned 4 Years After Tragedy

Darian Williams has focused on moving forward but encourages his friends to text him if they ever feel they cannot

Darian Williams
Photo: Darian Williams/Instagram

Every year, the shooting that left 17 students and staff members dead looms large over the idyllic town of Parkland in Southern Florida, but for 19-year-old Darian Williams, the day has evolved into a reminder that life must go on.

"That was a sucker punch that started life for me," Williams tells PEOPLE. "And I realized what life really is and what it could be and how fragile it is."

On Feb. 14, 2018, a 19-year-old former student walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and killed 17 people, which quickly sparked a national student-led March for Our Lives movement to curb gun violence.

As the country grappled with the news, students and families tried to make sense of the tragedy while attending funerals and returning to school. Williams, a sophomore at the time of the shooting, stopped attending funerals after his third one.

"I covered up with jokes because I didn't understand how to process this stuff," the affable teen told PEOPLE at the one-year anniversary.

Jeff Vespa/@portraits

Each year, he has processed the tragedy in new ways and tried to embrace the life he has by working for the life he wants.

In school, he was an avid photographer and videographer. During the pandemic — another monumental event in his life — he used the time to turn his passion into a business and created Darian Media.

"When you've seen the worst of what life can offer, it makes you a lot tougher to handle other circumstances that would otherwise put me down," he says.

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Williams plans to spend the day traveling for work, but the experience from four years ago is never far from his thoughts. And he wants his friends to know that he will always be there for them.

He tells his friends to "text me if you want to cry, anything like that," he says about the day that changed their lives. "And it's more than recognizing the 14th, but making my friends recognize that they have someone to talk to."

If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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