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Oxford, One Year Later: The friends

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April Van Buren
/
Michigan Radio
Olivia McMillan (left) and Abbey Allion.

It’s hard to imagine a time in life when friends mean more than they do in high school. They help buoy us through the ups and downs of adolescence, and cheer us on as we try new things. If we’re lucky, they help us accept and love ourselves for who we already are.

That is the kind of friendship that Abbey Allion had with her friend Justin Shilling, who she first met on the bus to elementary school.

“We were best friends for so long that it was like, we argued with each other all the time and it was always over something stupid. But there was so much love there. And I felt like when I was around Justin, like I really wanted to try and be like a more outgoing person,” said Abbey.

His outgoing personality and kindness meant that Justin had a lot of friends. But in high school, he found his core group with Abbey and three other students: Olivia McMillan, Ben Freytag, and Jake Love.

The group’s friendship was cemented in 2020, the summer after their sophomore year at Oxford High School. With COVID-19 restrictions making indoor hang outs off limits, the five friends spent long summer days outside together. They would ride their bikes, go swimming, build slip-and-slides, or just hang out around a camp fire.

“I just remember all five of us were squeezed on a small little bench just talking about anything and everything,” Olivia recalled. “And I think I called you once we got home, and I was like, I really, really love these people.”

The friendship between the five Oxford students grew deeper over the next few years. They would spend hours at each other’s house. They did school projects together, often with Olivia playing director with her camera. One time, they dyed Justin and Ben’s hair purple in Olivia’s basement. Both Olivia and Abbey said Justin was the kind of friend who knew just how to become your parents’ favorite. And he was as comfortable talking to a parent as he was hanging out with younger siblings as they worked on their Lego sets.

“He just loved people and loved making people smile,” Olivia said.

And then, the unthinkable happened. On November 30th, 2021, a fellow Oxford student open fired on his classmates with a gun bought for him by his parents. Justin was one of four students who was killed that day. He, like Abbey and Olivia, was a senior, with graduation and college not far away.

The weeks after Justin’s death were a whirlwind for the friends. They spent much of that December cleaved to each other. Abbey and Olivia spent hours putting together photo boards of Justin for his memorial, carefully attaching hundreds of photos they’d printed out onto trifold poster boards. But as the weeks and months went on, and the news headlines about the victims faded away, Abbey said the reality of losing her friend started to set in.

“And I think that was honestly like the hardest part, especially when we went back to school and it was like, okay, now you have to be normal. Now you have to go back to just pretending like this didn't happen. Go back to your normal life. Pretend your best friend didn't die.”

Each milestone — Justin’s 18th birthday, the last day of school, high school graduation — was a reminder of their loss. Even on days when they are just hanging out as a friend group, Justin’s absence is palpable.

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Courtesy
(from L to R) Jake Love, Ben Freytag, Justin Shilling, Abbey Allion, and Olivia McMilllan. In the summer after their sophomore year, COVID restrictions meant indoor hang outs were off-limits. So, the five friends spent almost every day outside together, swimming, riding their bikes, and hanging out by the fire.

“It's like there's something missing,” Olivia said. “And it's the reality of the aftermath that no one wants to look at and care about, because it's not, it's not the trial. It's not the shooter. It's not the parents. It's not this, it's not that. It's kids dealing with grief and trauma and reality.”
Justin’s death has been an inflection point for his friend group–even if they may not know where this path ultimately leads. Both have become outspoken about the need for stricter gun laws. But losing their best friend has meant big changes for them internally, as well. For Olivia, losing Justin made her realize how important her friendships really are.

“Like going back to the summer of Covid, that was the first time when I was like, “Wow, I don't need to be someone I'm not for people to like me.” I can be okay with my friends. And yeah, I think that's just the main thing is like being with the people I care about most and not worrying about all the extra people in my life that I feel I need to impress.”

And for Abbey, part of keeping Justin alive has been trying to adopt a little bit of his outgoing and friendly nature. It’s something she thought about a lot when she started college this fall.

“I want to try and be more like Justin was because I want to make people feel the way he made me and my friends feel. So it's definitely me stepping outside of my comfort zone. But I think, over the past year, I've been able to kind of work towards that a little bit more and just like try and live more like him because..I really envied it so much. And I think that it was like something good I wanted to take out of it–out of all the bad that happened.”

Olivia and Abbey's Conversation

Olivia: So would you like to kind of speak about who Justin was?

Abbey: Yeah. So I knew Justin since elementary school, like fourth grade. We rode the same bus together, and we've been friends ever since. We were really good friends all of elementary school, middle school, and high school. We were best friends for so long that it was like we argue with each other all the time and it was always over something stupid. But there was so much love there. And I felt like, when I was around Justin, I really wanted to try and be like a more outgoing person. I remember in between our classes or something, like we were walking through the hallways and we would just like, be like singing to ourselves and stuff like that. Like he just really didn't care what anybody else, like, thought about him. He was very, very comfortable and, like, confident with himself as a person. And he definitely made sure everybody around him was okay and that everybody felt included. If there was a new person in class, he would be the first person to talk to them. He was very caring, very, very outgoing, had no issue talking to anybody, just made everybody around him feel welcome. So how did you know Justin?

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April Van Buren
/
Michigan Radio
"As time goes on, memories are going to be way farther in the past. Like little things that I took notice of years ago, they're not still in my brain. So it's like scary because I feel like there's so much more of him that I wish I could remember. Like I wish I could remember every single thing he ever said." -- Abbey Allion on Justin Schilling

Olivia: So I met Justin, I think sixth grade, and I didn't become close with him until freshman year. Like, beginning of freshman year, we all had Chinese class together. And like you said, he was friends with pretty much everyone. I wouldn't say one person at school did not know him. And if you didn't know his name, you knew his hair. He had this big afro. But yeah, the best way I can describe my relationship with Justin is like siblings to the core. Even to my siblings. He loved Dominic and Anthony, who are my two brothers. They are 11 and 13, which is crazy to think about. One of the best things in his obituary is “he made family out of his best friend's families.” And I was like that describes it perfectly. Come over to our houses, kiss ass to our parents. I'm sorry.

Abbey: Oh, my God. And teachers.

Olivia: Teachers, yeah, it was like anyone and everyone. He just wanted to be their favorites, but, like, he would just walk into your house and, "Oh, look who's here, Justin!" Okay, you didn't knock?

Abbey: He was like every parent's, like, favorite.

Olivia: Oh, my God. It's so annoying.

Abbey: It was so annoying.

Olivia: But he would call my dad “father Marcus” since freshman year. But I just think that shows so much to his character about who he was, is… he just loved people and loved making people smile. So, if you have a memory that stands out with you and Justin or like in a group or something, what is the first one that comes to mind?

Abbey: I mean, I don't think I could pick just one, but I would probably have to say when COVID started in 2020 and once like lockdown and quarantine was getting loosened up a little bit, our friend group kind of came together. It was me and Olivia and Justin, and then our two friends, Jake and Ben. Ben was one of Justin's best...He was his very best friend. They lived across the street from each other.

Olivia: When you see Justin, you see Ben. That's how it was.

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Abbey: Jake lived down the street from Olivia. So I would say, like, probably, like, one of the most special memories was just we couldn't go inside because of COVID, so we would just go outside every single day and we would go on bike rides and we would go swimming. We would just do a bunch of random stuff. And it was just so fun being able to actually, like, get away from our phones and being stuck inside. And we were able to just, like, hang out with each other. And I remember one time we built a slip and slide in Olivia's backyard, and Justin was trying to get Olivia's puppies to go down it. And we put, like, soap and stuff all over it, and it was so much fun. We had a water balloon fight one of the times, and it was just a very pure moment and definitely very, very meaningful. And it was when we all became so close.

Olivia: When you're talking about the summer, the one memory that came to my mind was the one at Justin's house, the one campfire we did. Yeah. And I just remember all five of us were squeezed on a small little bench just talking about anything and everything. And I think I called you once we got home, and I was like, I really, really love these people. Yeah. And my whole thing was like, I don't care where I end up or who I become. All I know is I will have these four people with me till the day I die. But yeah, that is probably one of the most fun summers I will ever have.

Abbey: So do you want to talk about how we found out about what happened to Justin?

Olivia: So I guess we kind of already knew when we were in the school still. But you took forever to get out. And I remember being at Meijer for, I don't know, probably we were there for a long time, like two hours. And our friend Jake had COVID at the time and he was supposed to be in my class. So I knew he was okay. I knew he was safe, I knew he wasn't at school. Jake calls me and he was like, I just called Justin's phone. A nurse answered, like, I don't know what to do and I just blacked out. I remember being like, holy shit, like, this is real. We were kind of being told, Oh, he was stable, he's alive, he's at the hospital. We're like, Okay. Like, I remember me and you having conversations like, let's bring food up for everyone because we know our friend Ben is there. Like let's go get like Jimmy John's and like, give food to everyone. And then in a couple of days we'll go visit Justin when the hospital's not on lockdown. And that whole day of, like, after getting home was just weird.

Abbey: Yeah it was just eerie..

Olivia: Yeah, that's a good way to describe it. Yeah. And like, we knew more than I guess the general public did because we were getting information from parents, obviously. Um, I didn't sleep that night at all. And the next morning, I don't know if you remember this, so we knew that he was stable, but then we found out he was on life support that morning and we were like, okay.
Abbey: Well, yeah. Ben talks to me the night before saying we'll find out if he makes it tomorrow.

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Courtesy of Olivia McMillan
Olivia McMillan and Justin Shilling became close friends in their freshman year of high school. Olivia said Justin’s outgoing personality was magnetic–and that helped her feel more secure in herself. “Like going back to the summer of Covid, that was the first time when I was like, ‘Wow, I don't need to be someone I'm not for people to like me.’”

Olivia: And Ben told me that exact same thing that morning and I was like, OK, he's made it through the night. That seems like a good sign in my opinion. And Jake called me and was like, they're taking him off life support. I don't know when like, I'm so sorry, Liv, like, I don't understand. And I just remember hanging up, sitting on my bed, and I just hysterically start crying. And I call you and I'm like Abbey, I don't know, like, I'm coming to get you right now. Like, I was going to drive, and my mom was like, you are not driving.

Abbey: Yeah, I just remember because you told me, and I just, like, sat there for some reason I didn't have, like, an emotional response. It was just like, oh my God. I just sat there in shock. Like what? It just, it wasn't real. Like, it couldn't have been real. And I just remember seeing Olivia for the first time and just hugging each other, which we don't do much.

Abbey: But, it was just, like, the most heartbreaking thing ever. And then we went back to Olivia's house, and our friend Jake came over. And Evan, his brother. And I just remember probably the hardest thing, the one time that it was like, oh, my God, this is real. Just because we all knew that he had passed.

Olivia: And just to give context, it was like we found out, and then like our classmates found out, and then the news found out. So all of our phones started blowing up at the same time being like, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry from, like, the rest of our classmates. And then we were all in my basement. And I remember, like, we had the news on. And it was all four of us in the basement. And it was the first time they said his name and that he passed away, and all four of us started crying.

Abbey: When somebody dies, it's like you kind of try and just your mind comes up with, like, reasons, like, oh, you know, he just hasn't texted me. And like, obviously I saw him like, the day before, so it was very, very hard to grasp. But for some reason, in that moment, all of us just hearing his name, seeing his picture up on the news.

Olivia: And I think it was because it wasn't just us in like our little town doing it. It was like a big news program.

Abbey: Yeah, that was like, no way.

Olivia: Yeah, that was probably one of the most surreal moments of it all, especially the weeks from that day and the weeks to come, that was still one of the… What the heck, I don't like this. I don't like this.

Abbey: Yeah, because through all of December we were all so in shock and like we were all just together all the time. It felt very comforting at first.

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Courtesy Abbey Allion
Abbey and Justin had been best friends since elementary school. And in that time, Justin became like a part of her family. In the year since the shooting, Justin’s absence is still very present for the group of friends. “It's always in the back of your head, like there's something missing. Somebody else is supposed to be here.”

Olivia: Yeah, it was. It's really weird to look back on the month of December.

Abbey: It was almost like, it might sound bad to say it, but it was almost like peaceful. In a way, in a sense. Because it's like none of us actually were, like, grasping what happened. Like it didn't set in for us yet. And we were just, like, with each other all the time. And like, obviously there was a lot of emotion and stuff like that, but it was just almost like there was so much love around us, like within our friends and stuff like that. And it was, I don't know, it was weirdly a peaceful time. It was before, like any drama with the school and, yeah.

Olivia: Yeah, and I just remember like especially the first two weeks, Abbey and I like we did not stop once.

Abbey: We didn't even have like a moment to just, like, stop and, like, let it set in. Like we had to make all the picture boards for his funeral, and we printed off almost 400 pictures. And we were up all night because it was, like, very last minute that we had to do it.

Olivia: Yeah, and I was like, we have to do it a certain way because they need to keep these pictures and they can't be ripped.

Abbey: So we ended up making what was it? Like eight of the big tri-fold ones.

Olivia: And we had a couple of small ones too. And it just covered this whole side of the room.

Abbey: And I remember talking about it with you on the way there that it was like, we know it's going to be hard. We know this is like going to be the hardest thing ever. But we wanted to, instead of making it like this super, super sad thing, which obviously it is, but we wanted just everybody to know who we was. From that very first moment, we were like, we need everybody to know. We need everybody to know every little thing we know about Justin. Like we need to share all of our memories. We need to show who he was because there was so many people, there were so many people at his funeral, at all of the funerals, because it was like a community-wide thing. So it's like there's people here that are like, you know, obviously just there for support, didn't know him very well. So it was like very nice just to be able to like, from that very beginning, be able to share who he was and give everybody insight into him because they don't have the chance to meet him anymore.

Olivia: So do you want to talk a bit about the organ donation, the Walk of Life that happened?

Abbey: So there was hundreds of people gathered outside. And I remember we were all just standing there waiting because they said that we would be able to see, like not actually be able to see him, but like in the bed that he was on, like his body, like they would roll it down the hallway because they had like the Walk of Life. And they had all the nurses lining up against the windows. And I remember everybody was just sitting there staring up at the – I think was like the third or fourth floor. And then we saw the nurses start lining up, and they all started clapping. And it was kind of like, it was like such a beautiful moment, like everybody in the crowd standing outside. And it was so emotional for me. But, like, I remember so vividly after they wheeled Justin's body through, Justin's mom went over to the skywalk and everybody from the crowd could see her in this big window. And I remember she stood up on the ledge, like on the window that everybody could see. And she was cheering. I don't know. It made me very, very happy to see her. And, you know, I think it probably brought her so much joy just seeing how many people were there. And I think she just really wanted everybody to like, you know, be like, oh, my gosh, look at what my son's doing. He's, like, saving six lives. Like, it's just it was such a surreal moment.

Olivia: And just seeing everyone there, it was like that and the vigil that was held for Justin. Those two were like, Oh, it's not just us, you know what I mean? Like, you feel really alone in situations like this, but when people come out and support someone that you love so much, it's like, I'm so glad that you guys are so happy to be here doing this to honor him.

Abbey: Yeah. So I think the hardest part of that, like we said, December was, like, weirdly calm and like there was so much love. And I think the hardest part and I think it goes with like any death, but especially like in school shootings because it's like made so public. Everybody cares for like the first five seconds.

Abbey: I mean especially because it's on the news across the country. But that first month, and honestly, the first like two months, was when we got the most love and support. But that was not when we needed it most. We were so in shock still. Like, it took so long to get over. We were go, go, go. We didn't really need that support until it started to set in. And that's when it kind of, like, faded away. And I think that was honestly the hardest part, especially when we went back to school and it was like, OK, now you have to be normal. Now you have to go back to just pretending like this didn't happen. Go back to your normal life. Pretend your best friend didn't die. And it just felt like, oh, we just want to, like, move on, pretend this didn't happen. And the last thing Olivia and I wanted to do, and I think probably other people that were very close was like, move on from this. We don't want to move on from that. We don't want people to forget about them.

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Olivia: So I know we kind of talked about like the right when we went back and that reality of it all. But do you want to talk about kind of once stuff became, quote unquote, normal again and like how we dealt with big events and big life changes, I guess.

Abbey: Yeah. So I mean, it was very difficult, want to be like we're expected to just kind of be like back into our normal routine.

Olivia: I say like in March, April is when it was, when it was like forced upon us. Yeah.

Abbey: Because we went back to school and it was like, okay, you guys can like play a game…

Olivia: Put your feet in the water. Test it out.

Abbey: But then it was like, OK, out of nowhere, your life has to be normal again. But it was nice because there's other people like people that we're close to [that] understood. So we were able, like Justin's birthday is April 18 and for his birthday, we were able to go to the cemetery with his mom and all of his closest friends. We all skipped school that day.

Olivia: It snowed. April 18. The week before it was beautiful and gorgeous out. We were all hoping for a great day. Like, nope, it completely snowed the whole day. And it wasn't like a nice "Oh, it's so pretty." It was windy and cold and snowy. But yeah, we all went to the cemetery together and then we went to lunch. But I remember we got there and I can't remember who brought it. Someone brought wind chimes. Do you remember that? And it was yeah, it was honestly so beautiful because it was like, Oh, okay, maybe the wind was for a reason. But then like his birthday was the 18th, and then we got out of school the fourth, May 4, and it was just kind of like.
Abbey: That was a lot harder than his birthday.

Olivia: That was a lot harder than I expected it to be because I was like, thank God I'm done. But I was like wait, I'm done.

Abbey: Why isn't he with us? You know.

Olivia: I have no closure. That was how I felt leaving that school. We did a clap out and I remember we walked out of that building and I turned around, and I looked at it, I was like, this is stupid. This is dumb. Like, you guys aren't giving me anything to be OK to leave right now. I can't, like, I don't have any closure whatsoever.

Abbey: Yeah. And I think, like, that was one of those moments where I almost wasn't able to make it into, like, this happy thing because it was just the most heartbreaking thing ever. Because they have a clap out and all the grades below us, they stand lining the hallways as all the seniors walk out and they cheer for them. And Justin, he was, like, a big cheerer. We went to football games. Like, he didn't care. Everyone was looking at him. And so, like, it was just, like, very heartbreaking because that was one of those moments that, like, you know, he's not here. I think the very, very hardest part about leaving that school and why it was so emotional was almost like we were leaving Justin there, like we all got to move on and he died in that school.

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April Van Buren
/
Michigan Radio
Abbey Allion (L) and Oliva McMillian (R) walk in a March For Our Lives event in June 2022.

Olivia: And that's just kind of like stuff like that, like his birthday, the last day of school. Even, like when me, you, Jake, and Ben all hang out. It's like there's something missing. And it's the reality of the aftermath that no one wants to look at and care about, because it's not the trial. It's not the shooter. It's not the parents. It's not this, it's not that. It's kids dealing with grief and trauma and reality.

Abbey: And like, that's not something that just goes away. And I don't know, people expect grief to just be this like linear thing. And just like, like you said about our friend group hanging out, it's like it's always in the back of your head, but, like, there's something missing. Somebody else is supposed to be here.

Olivia: Where's that loud mouth? I'm waiting. Like, it sucks. The most painful things, for me at least I think, of it all. Like, there was this ongoing joke that when we got older that every Thursday night we were going to do some sort of dinner party at my house for some reason. I don't know when that was discovered, but Justin decided it was going to be at my house and like, yeah, we can still do that, but it's not the same. And you only have so many memories, you only have so many pictures, you only have so many videos that you come across and you're like, Oh, I forgot about that.

Abbey: Yeah, that's something that really, really scares me is when, like, I remember a memory that I hadn't even thought about, like, in years about him. And I'm like, what else have I forgot about?

Olivia: And what am I forgetting about?

Abbey: Yes. And that's what's scary to me because like, as time goes on, memories are going to be like way farther in the past. Like little things that, like, I took notice of years ago. Like, they're not still in my brain. So it's scary because I feel like there's so much more of him that I wish I could remember. Like, I wish I could remember every single thing he ever said. There's little, tiny things that, like, I'll remember occasionally and be like, oh my gosh, I need to write this down. Like, I never want to forget this, even if it's like something stupid that I remember he said in class one time. But it's scary to think about even years in the future is, I feel like I'm getting farther away from him and I'm losing a connection with him, and I don't ever want to do that. And that's like the scariest part about it.

Olivia: And what I was saying, what the other day, is like literally the 30th is going to be the one year mark of the last time we saw Justin. Like, yeah, we saw him at the funeral, but it wasn't him.

Abbey: Yeah. And one of the saddest things is like one of the videos you took on your little camcorder, there's Justin in one of them being like, "Guys, imagine us looking back on this in like 30 years and like showing our kids these videos and like being able to be like, those were my friends." And like, that's Justin saying that stuff and it's like, he's never like, it's not going to be the same.

Abbey: He can't show his kids that. He's not able to look back on that. But it's sad because it's like he was so excited to look back on that and it's like he won't even be able to. He's stuck at 17 and I hate that.

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April Van Buren
/
Michigan Radio
"We had the news on and it was all four of us in the basement. And it was the first time they like said his name and that he passed away, and all four of us started crying." - Olivia McMillan talking about the day that Justin died.

Olivia: I know since everything happened, it's become more of like a sore subject. Obviously, before seeing something like this happening somewhere else is like, oh crap, that's horrible. But because it happened and we know the effects, how just stuff like that, like Uvalde for example, like how does that make you feel? And I mean, what does it bring up?

Abbey: Yeah, it's very, very weird being a part of that community, like being grouped in with the school shooting victim community. Like I said before, it's something you never think would happen to you. And so it definitely was a reality check, obviously. And I kind of like can admit to like before this happened, I was kind of in with that group where it's like, Oh, I cared for a little bit because I heard it on the news and it's like slowly faded out. I didn't really think about it much, and so it gave me that understanding of like, oh my god, that's awful. That's terrible. It's like, Uvalde on the news. Like when you saw that, it was like, oh my god. It's just like this crazy thing where you, like, basically relive it. Like, I remember when I was watching the news stories, I was like, thinking about, like, how I felt that day. And it made me go back to it because I was imagining, like, how the families and like all the other kids at the school feel. And it's almost just like reliving that day whenever you see something like that happen again. And it's heartbreaking because you know firsthand how it feels and how absolutely impossible it is to navigate. There's not, like, a correct way to do it.

Olivia: We don't even know what we're doing still.

Abbey: But, like, I'm also because I'm so passionate about it now. It's like when I saw that on the news, I was watching all the news stories. I want to watch every trial and stuff for any school shooting or anything like that that happens because I want to know everything. But also with that comes like almost reliving the day of when I was there. And it's heartbreaking that other people have to go through this, too. And god, I wish this wasn't a thing.

Olivia: Yeah, I think before everything, I had developed, like a deep, deep fear of a school shooting happening because of Parkland. I was so invested, I guess you could say, with it. So when it happened, I was thrown completely for a loop because, yeah, I feared it, but you never think it's going to happen. But after ours, now I can look at it and see these kids and these families and be like, now I actually know what happened. And every time something happens, I'm like, I don't even know what to do at this point because I'm telling you, my friend died and you don't care. That's exactly how it feels. And I get so riled up about it because these adults who are just oblivious and feel the need to be ignorant and ignore it that children are dying in their classrooms. Like literal babies, like looking at Uvalde, 10-year-olds are dying. How are you not worried? How are you not like, wow, maybe we should fix something? Maybe guns aren't something we really need to be praising. And, why would we need assault weapons? Like that is the most simplest thing. Why do we need that? This is insane. Why did I have to grow up doing lockdown drills? Why did I have to grow up doing ALICE training? Why do I have to fight for my life just in case a shooter comes to my school? Let's just prevent it. I don't know. Just an idea, like I feel like these are such simple things.

Abbey: And I feel like it's I mean, like, obviously, it's like so many people have died, but also they don't think about the, like, hundreds of thousands of kids that have to deal with this trauma every day as well.

Olivia: It's the killed. It's the injured, it's the traumatized. It's the families.
Olivia: Like you look at Oxford, there's like there's I don't think one person that day wasn't traumatized in the community in one way, shape or form. Parents were traumatized. Siblings were traumatized. People who were there were traumatized, teachers, staff members like.

Olivia: Obviously family.

Abbey: Like nobody in that community will ever be the same.

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April Van Buren
/
Michigan Radio
Olivia McMillan (L) and Abbey Allion (R) at the Michigan Radio studios in November.

Olivia: No.

Olivia: Do you want to talk about, like, ways that you stay connected and, like, try to keep him with you and all that?

Abbey: I mean, I text him all the time still. I text his number all the time.

Olivia: I send him one year ago memories on Snapchat.

Abbey: It's not every time. It's not like, oh, I miss you, I miss you. You know, it's like sometimes it's just life updates. Like this past week, I remember I met somebody and they were telling me about how they, for one of their projects in high school, did a parody of a song. And I was like, Oh my gosh, I gotta tell Justin this because he did that so many times and it was always the funniest thing. Like he, like he went so all out for it. So I just texted him and I was like, Oh my gosh, Justin, you would love this dude. I just met him. Or it's like, I meet somebody that I think that, like, he would be good friends with or something. It's sad because obviously he's not going to answer, but it's comforting. It's definitely like I'm having a hard time, my go-to is literally just like, text him, tell him about it, talk to him about it.

Olivia: I've tried to start out loud speaking. Like I went to the cemetery the other day, and I, I like was like, I'm going to talk. Like, I'm actually going to talk instead of sort of sit here and like, talk in my head. I'm going to talk out loud. And that I found extremely comforting because I hadn't done it before. It's like I'm going to, I'm going to have a conversation. I'm going to tell him this out loud. And I think that, for some reason it's harder, I guess, and it makes me more sad because I'm like, dang. I'm not getting a response back.

Abbey: And I feel that sounds crazy to say, but I'm literally the exact same way where it's like, oh my god, I just wish he would respond.

Olivia: Or like certain things will happen when I'm like, I need your advice. He was so good at advice, and it's like, it's like dang it, I wish I knew what you would say. Like, I thought that, like, after everything happened, like he would have an answer, like, to comfort us. Like, I know. And we don't have that. And like that goes throughout the rest of our lives is like things will happen. I'm like, this is something I would go to Justin for. Just for like a, like a pick me up, or a joke. Like I had him send me like one time he sent me a video of like some movie from the nineties and he's like, just listen to this and you will be fine. And I was like, OK. So it's stuff like that where it's like, I just wish I could get something from you. Anything.

Abbey: So, do you want to talk about how the past year, since everything happened, has changed you and how your life has changed in that year?

Olivia: I mean, yeah. So I can go and talk about my mental health and how that's affecting me and how I view the world now, and how I feel about gun violence. And how I've become so just, I need to do something. But if I had to, like, look at the situation and be like, okay, what is one thing that I've tried to do better at is just living in the moment I guess, with the people I care most about. And going back to the summer of COVID, that was the first time when I was like, Wow, I don't need to be someone I'm not for people to like me. I can be okay with my five friends. And I think that's just the main thing. Like being with the people I care about most and not worrying about all the extra people in my life that I feel I need to impress or like worrying about those types of people that I don't really need to worry about. What about you?

Abbey: Um, just experiencing something that I never, like, it's just always like you never think that would happen to me. And after that, like, I felt like my life just did a full 180. And it's been hard to just kind of navigate. But I feel like, over the past year, I've learned a lot about myself and, like, it's changed me permanently. I'm never going to go back to the way I was before, and the realization of that was hard. But I think maybe the one good thing that's come out of it was like, yes, what you said, like living in the moment. And also, I mean, I was so scared to go off to college and meet people and I kind of just kept it in the back of my head, that I want to try and be more like Justin was. Because I want to make people feel the way he made me and my friends feel. So it's definitely me stepping outside of my comfort zone. But I think over the past year I've been able to kind of work towards that a little bit more, and just try and live more like him because I really envied it so much. And I think that it was like something good I wanted to take out of it, out of all the bad that happened.

Olivia: And Carry his legacy. Yeah. In some way.

Abbey: Yeah.

These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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April Van Buren
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.