Photo by Ashley Mowreader
My suitemates are tough people to get in contact with, and that was before we lived in six different cities across five time zones.
My DeBell F Suite was born spring of 2018, a product of Pepperdine housing and the extensive planning of eight overly excited Regent scholars. Once on campus, the eight of us — Haley Brouwer, Pari Cribbins, Lauren Drake, Bridget Johnson, Alaina Housley, Zoe Walsh, Alicia Yu and I — quickly became fast friends, doing everything together.
When asked to describe our dynamic in one word, Alicia and Pari said “energetic.” Bridget said “courageous.” I said “a hot mess.” But the word that kept coming up was “family.”
“We love each other,” Lauren said. “We fight, we want different things [and] we might not see each other for a while, but there is a deeper kind of love there that’s deeper than the relationships you have with other people.”
Nov. 7, Alicia and Alaina went to Borderline Bar and Grill for college night. That night, Alaina died in the mass shooting that took place at Borderline. That night, our bond was tested and we really began to understand what it means to be a family.
In November 2018, we published an article in the Graphic’s special edition “In the Midst” titled “Alaina, One-Eighth of Us” in which we reflected on who Alaina was to us, our time with her, and how we want the Pepperdine community and beyond to remember her.
For the one-year anniversary of her death, we knew we wanted to publish something new. So over the past month, for an hour or so at a time, I’ve settled into an empty classroom in Casa Olleros in Buenos Aires to call one of my roommates around the world and dig into what it means to be one-eighth of Alaina’s DeBell F suite.
Living the Suite Life
Although we quickly became best friends, we were strangers first. Remembering the beginning of freshman year resurfaces stories of shared bathrooms, tea, photoshoots and memories.
Photo by Ashley Mowreader
“I associate my first semester a lot more with going to the Getty Villa, going shopping and going off campus a lot more,” Pari said. “In terms of suite dynamics, it felt like one of the movies where we tried on each other’s clothes and ‘surprise, surprise,’ some of us got lice!”
(For the record, the lice thing was settled within the week, though it did cause a lot of tension.)
I think it surprised each of us how natural it felt to be together. It felt like we’d found our people.
“I’ve been searching for a consistent friend group for a long time and I’ve found that with the suite,” Alicia said. “I think from Move-in Day to November 7, those were the happiest times in my life and it’s because of the suite.”
Becoming Friends with Grief
Our relationship immediately developed and deepened following Alaina’s death. Alaina was the first close friend any of us had lost, and the unusual circumstances added to the chaos of grief and coping.
“[Alaina’s death] was very complicated in a way that I don’t think any of us had ever experienced before,” Alicia said. “First of all, she was very young. Second, no one thought it was going to happen when we went out. Third, it was murder. It was someone we had only known in person for two and a half months, but we knew her very well.”
Grief hit us all very differently. Many of us struggled with our mental health, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Other symptoms of grief were more physical, like extreme bursts of anger, the inability to eat for extended periods of time, the inability to get out of bed or creating distance from the suite as a whole.
“There were times I felt physically sick,” Haley said. “When I started to feel myself move through the grief, guilt was a big thing for me. I would feel guilty when I didn’t think about her enough or remember her enough. That was one of the hardest parts of grief — accepting that I was starting to be OK but she never would be.”
While it is hard to grieve as an individual, living in close proximity with those who had also experienced the same loss magnified our emotions. The weeks we were back on campus post-Thanksgiving break and before Christmas break were the hardest time for us as a group. We were unable to take care of ourselves or each other.
“I went back to school and things got worse,” Zoe said. “I was able to run away to my home. I still had those negative emotions but I didn’t have to confront the tragedy of reality … But when I got back to school it was really bad. I didn’t exactly know who to turn to because who I usually would turn to was my suitemates.”
Personally, the week immediately coming back to campus was the hardest week. When we returned to our suite, the majority of Alaina’s belongings were still in her and Lauren’s room.
Over Thanksgiving break, Lauren and I decided I would move into her room, but I was unable to do so for days as Pepperdine encouraged us to go through Alaina’s things, pull out mementos and document what items we took for Alaina’s parents, Arik and Hannah Housley. I moved in on Nov. 28, the day of Alaina’s funeral.
Our grief was also very public. Social media played a large role in spreading information about Borderline and especially about Alaina.
Whether from the tragedy of a mass shooting, the prominence of a famous relative or a combination of both, Alaina’s Instagram blew up after her death. Thousands of likes and comments appeared on her latest posts, strangers followed her account and ours, sending DMs of sympathy, well wishes and the incredibly insulting, “Did you know her?”
“The sheer number of strangers who followed me because they wanted something to do with the tragedy and DMed me — it wasn’t anywhere close to what Alicia or Lauren got but it was nauseating,” Pari said.
Alicia had shared a photo of her and Alaina at Borderline on her Instagram story and tagged Borderline, which resulted in dozens of people messaging her. Each of us had a surge of followers or follow requests on Instagram, but Lauren and Alicia the most.
Alicia and Alaina at Borderline on Nov 7. Photo courtesy of Alicia Yu.
“I have never hated being a person living in this age today more than I did at that time,” Lauren said. “[I received] over 500 follow requests on my page because I was tagged in a good amount of Alaina’s posts.”
I also experienced a flood of followers on Twitter after tweeting about Alaina being missing early Nov. 8. My tweet was shared by thousands of people, including Alaina’s famous aunt, “Sister, Sister” star Tamera Mowry-Housley.
Grieving on social media was unfamiliar territory, and there didn’t seem to be a right answer.
“I didn’t know how to approach it,” Haley said. “Immediately after was the hardest, and for the month or so after, I didn’t know what to do with it. I did end up doing a story on Instagram about her, but in the time after I wasn’t sure if it was something I should continue to address.”
Most, if not all, of us took a break from social media following the shooting, hoping to get some distance from the event and the overwhelming interest from the public and the news media.
“I preferred to keep off of social media regarding that subject in November,” Zoe said. “I just wanted my grief to be personal and private. I didn’t feel comfortable posting on social media. I wanted to keep it to myself and figure it out.”
Pepperdine & the Suite
Our suite’s notoriety continued on Pepperdine’s campus but in a different way. Instead of being confronted head-on with a barrage of messages, it seemed like everyone knew who we were but no one wanted to say anything.
I experienced this first-hand after Alaina’s memorial service. We all participated in the service, Lauren through song and the rest of us through reading Psalm 23. I went to intramural volleyball that evening where I worked as a referee, and I could feel the recognition and pity focused on me like laser beams. But no one said anything. I can’t blame them. What do you say to that?
Graphic File Photo
From left to right, Zoe Pari, me, Alicia, Haley and Bridget reading Psalm 23 at Alaina’s memorial Nov. 28.
“Speaking at the service, a lot of people were at that service,” Bridget said. “And a lot of people, right afterward, they knew that you knew Alaina or that you were friends with her because they saw you at that. Even like professors and stuff now know.”
Meeting new people brings its own set of problems as well. Haley, Pari, Alicia, Zoe and I are studying abroad with a new group of people, and Lauren and Bridget are living and interacting with a completely new group of people on the Malibu campus.
“It’s so hard, especially when you meet new people, like going abroad and stuff,” Alicia said. “For us, it’s something that’s a part of our lives now. It’s a big deal, but it’s not like every time we talk about it the ground shakes. It’s hard to share with someone while bracing for the way they’re going to react.”
There’s also trepidation in how much a person knows. We’ve been very public about our relationship to Alaina, but that’s no guarantee a peer or teacher understands our hurt. I find myself having conversations just trying to gauge whether or not this person is aware of my trauma.
“There are times in situations that it will come up or something similar will come up and I just feel kind of outside of it because I don’t know if people know how I was involved in that and it’s hard to explain it,” Haley said.
While we feel the need to tiptoe around sensitive topics when talking to some, others want to bypass the conversation entirely.
“People avoid the conversation and that’s a little interesting,” Bridget said. “I mean I don’t have an issue talking about it, but people perceive that we might not want to talk about it, but I don’t think that’s something they need to do.”
Alaina’s name carries a different kind of notoriety on campus. To mention Alaina Housley is loaded with Borderline, gun violence and Alaina’s Voice non-profit instead of the person she was during her life.
“I didn’t particularly enjoy the way that Alaina’s memory got simplified so that it could be understood by the masses,” Zoe said. “She just became this idea instead of a person. Pepperdine had to package the tragedy that made sense to students who weren’t connected to her, to alumni, etc. They had to grieve her really publicly as an organization that didn’t know her personally, but they had to still issue statements and figure out a way to present her memory.”
Alaina seemed to be diminished to the best parts of herself — kind, understanding and musical. But to reduce her to these things forgets so much of who she was.
“I feel we talk about the fact that she’s kind a lot, [but] I don’t want to forget her humor,” Haley said. “Because some of the jokes she made, and the side comments and the sarcasm and the little things, I think that defined a lot of my relationship with her because that’s somewhere where we connected.”
Photo by Ashley Mowreader
For us, Alaina’s memory is found in Coffee Bean blended dark chocolate mochas, StarKid musicals, Mason jars of Modge Podge, two-piece pajama sets and especially our 21st Night of September party celebrating the song “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire.
“When I think of memories with Alaina, [Sept. 21] comes up first,” Alicia said. “It was just a night where we did dumb stuff for the sake of doing dumb stuff. A lot of the memories I had with her were just doing things to enjoy each other’s presence.”
She was also very intentional with people and generous with her time.
“Living in Alaina’s legacy is doing everything with the same intention and passion that she had,” Bridget said. “She seemed like somebody who really tried to make the most of life … and enjoying what she did while she did it.”
One Year Later
Nov. 7 is the one-year anniversary of Borderline, and it brings up a lot of different emotions including bewilderment, internal and external pressure, sadness and heaviness.
“I just can’t believe it’s been a year,” Pari said. “It really just strikes me that Nov. 8 is barely into the school year. I don’t think that hit me as much until looking back on it.”
Throughout the past year, the seventh day of each month has marked one more month without Alaina. These anniversaries prompted emotional reactions, especially in the sixth month, but the one year feels different.
“I know it’s going to be hard, whatever this day brings,” Lauren said. “There’s gonna be tears, there’s gonna be grief, there’s gonna be sadness. [I’ll be] missing [our suite] so much; that’s gonna be the worst part.”
Pepperdine has made an effort to remember Borderline and Alaina for the one year. Florence is dedicating a tree and holding a memorial service. Lausanne and Buenos Aires are hosting open-mic coffee houses to honor Alaina and her love of music.
The one year holds a special weight I can’t put my finger on. It’s a pressure to remember her and almost a justification to grieve again. With Alaina’s fame there’s also an external pressure to reshare or remember her so she’s remembered. But I’m also terrified of the reality that after one year, people may not care. This will probably be the last time Pepperdine publicly grieves Alaina, and I don’t know how to feel about that.
“Honestly, I constantly think about [the anniversary] and how I think it’ll pan out or how I want it to pan out,” Alicia said. “I feel like people have forgotten a lot, but I feel like the anniversary they have to remember. It does scare me that this is like a pivotal moment. I hope that people keep talking about it and how people talk about it will continue to evolve.”
A Year of Change
This past year has changed a lot of things for the suite — physically in the form of new haircuts, tattoos and scars, spiritually in how each of us values faith but especially emotionally.
“I feel like my capacity for empathy has increased,” Pari said. “I find myself being overly invested in people’s lives and I give 110% to those I’m with. My approach to people has changed.”
Empathy is a buzzword that defines our experiences. Taking the time to listen to those around us, investing in relationships and being able to empathize with those struggling were all things that helped us heal and in return have become goals in life.
Alaina also inspired us to live more authentically and boldly.
“[I’ve] been a lot more open on social media and I don’t care about keeping up a persona,” Alicia said. “I feel a lot more free to unfollow accounts that don’t make me feel good about myself. Seeing how fragile life is, I want to make more meaningful use of life and of other people’s time.”
Alaina’s loss was also an eye-opener for how dark and scary the world can be.
“I’m still struggling with the idea of the world being a place that gives good things,” Zoe said. “In all these experiences, I really struggled with letting it be good. I have a lot more anxiety and I don’t trust as much that things are going to be OK.”
The experience of a friend’s death, being in a harsh but quick media spotlight, and finishing finals before being able to process grief sharpened us more than expected .
“I’ve hardened but in a good way,” Lauren said. “[I] would never trade anything for the loss of her life, but before this experience, I was someone who always thought everything happened for a reason, who only saw the good in people and the good in the lives of people around me that led me to not be very critical.”
But seeing the darkness more clearly has also illuminated silver linings in our lives. Thankfulness has become a key aspect in my and my suitemates’ day to day, emphasizing things to be grateful for even when it feels like there’s nothing good.
“I appreciate things more, which sounds so cliché but I do,” Bridget said. “I’m more thankful for the education at Pepperdine … and having a family that cares about me and friends around me that care because sometimes we just take that so for granted. This last year has certainly shown me perseverance and that there’s a plan for each of us.”
Photo courtesy of Bridget Johnson
For most of us, faith was an integral part in healing and finding hope through the hurt.
“[I found healing in] God, clearly,” Zoe said. “He shows me ways that He can redeem these terrible, evil events in every day. He shows me how it can make me stronger. The good now doesn’t erase the bad of then, but there’s no point in my life that is too far away from Him or too dark or too hopeless that He won’t bring good into my life again.”
We also found love in our friends, our family, the community we’ve cultivated at Pepperdine and most certainly in each other and our love and memory of Alaina.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the role she played in my life,” Haley said. “[I had to] accept the fact that it was limited but she was still a good person and there are so many out there who love her and care for her, and that wasn’t limited to the seven other girls who lived in my suite. And at first that was an uncomfortable feeling that grew to comfort me. ”
For those who may connect with our story, have gone through a similar situation or are looking for their silver lining, there is hope.
Ask for help and give yourself time to heal, Bridget said.
Grief is unexpected and you can’t predict the feelings you’re going to have, Zoe said.
Just because you’ve confronted death and tragedy, it doesn’t mean other things in life are less important, Pari said.
You cannot control this, do not put pressure on yourself, remember that you are loved, Haley said.
You are not alone, and you have the strength to get through this, Alicia said.
This trauma, this experience, this person is not your identity, and you cannot stop living your life because someone took your friend’s opportunity to live theirs, Lauren said.
And the best advice I can give you is to tell your story. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to hurt. But the best thing you can share is the story you’ve been given. I hope I’ve done ours justice.
Email Ashley Mowreader: firstname.lastname@example.org