Sandy Hook Survivors, Now 17 and 18, Reflect on Trauma While Growing Up and Their 'Happy-Sad' Graduation (Exclusive)

“Our friends, those who should be here ... their loss doesn't go in vain,” Matt Holden tells PEOPLE

<p><a href="">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> From left: Sandy Hook 2012 shooting survivors and 2024 high school graduates Henry Terifay, Grace Fischer, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden, Ella Seaver and Lilly Wasilnak.
  • The first graders who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 are now graduating from high school and entering young adulthood

  • The emotionally complicated milestone is marked by both joy and sadness, they say

  • Here, some of the survivors and new grads reflect and look ahead to their future; read more in next week's issue of PEOPLE

Twelve years after the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting killed 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, the first-grade students who survived that day are graduating high school.

The happiness and hope of their achievement — marking their passage into adulthood — is intertwined, forever, with loss. As it should be, the students say.

"It’s kind of yin and yang,” 18-year-old Ella Seaver told PEOPLE in an interview before she received her diploma from Newtown High School on Wednesday, June 12.

In recent weeks, PEOPLE spoke with 10 of the student survivors of the mass shooting who are either graduating on Wednesday or graduated last year.

Some of these teenagers — who heard and watched their classmates being killed and then had to flee the threat of violence themselves — want to go on to become therapists, after their years of therapy as they coped with trauma; or they would like to be politicians and attorneys, having become involved with the anti-gun violence Jr. Newtown Action Alliance.

The slain students and the memories of that day are not ever truly out of mind; neither is the desire to speak out, to remember and to heal themselves and their communities, day by day.

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> From left: Sandy Hook 2012 shooting survivors and 2024 high school graduates Henry Terifay, Grace Fischer, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden, Ella Seaver and Lilly Wasilnak.

"This lives with us," says 17-year-old Emma Ehrens, who grappled with intense survivor's guilt in her childhood and plans to work in civil rights. "For the people that think that it just disappears, it doesn't. It's going to be with us until we die."

Below, some of the Sandy Hook graduates reflect on that fateful day, how their lives have unfolded since and their hopes for the future.

For more from these students and other community members, including parents of those who were killed, read next week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands June 21.

Related: Sandy Hook 10 Years Later: Remembering the 89 Students Killed in School Shootings From that Day Until Now

Ella Seaver, 18

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Ella Seaver

Ella Seaver first realized she and her classmates were in danger when her late principal, Dawn Hochsprung, came on the loudspeaker on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012.

“She came on the intercom and I vividly remember her saying, ‘Get to your safe spot,’ ” Seaver, whose class was around the corner from those that were attacked, tells PEOPLE. “And then literally being able to hear a phone drop and hit the ground.”

While the teen admits finding joy in life has been “kind of hard” since the shooting, she has learned to leave space for both happiness and heartache: “Specifically with graduation, people are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re graduating high school, this is a monumental moment in your life.’ Yes, but it has that touch of sorrow when you realize what's missing.”

Speaking of her experience and what she hopes others impacted by gun violence will learn from her, Seaver says, “You can still find the joy in life and try and work to not only make this happen less but also show how grief doesn't have to be so consuming. You can still have that loss and feel it but not let it overtake you. You can still keep growing.”

Henry Terifay, 18

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Henry Terifay

Anjelica Jardiel

Henry Terifay

Like Seaver, Henry Terifay remembers the moment of his principal's interrupted warning at the start of the shooting. “I can't remember what she was saying exactly, but the loudspeaker comes on and then you can hear him go in there and shoot her and shoot the rest of the front office,” Terifay recalls.

While the 18-year-old made it out of the building alive, one of his closest friends, Chase Kowalski, did not. “I have his name tattooed on my back with a green heart at the end of “E” for the Sandy Hook colors,” Terifay tells PEOPLE. “In the wrestling section of the yearbook, you can see his tattoo in a close-up picture of me. I sent it to his mom and she was like, ‘Thank you. I was afraid he wouldn’t be in [the yearbook]. I appreciate you.’”

“I just really want things to be different,” Terifay says now. “I want more commonsense gun laws, universal background checks and more bannings on high power assault rifles … I just want things to be done.”

Emma Ehrens, 17

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Emma Ehrens

In room 10 of Sandy Hook Elementary, Emma Ehrens and her class were sitting together reading a book. The banging noises heard in the hallways didn’t alarm the group as there was construction happening at the time. “We didn’t think much of it until a guy walked into my classroom with a gun,” Ehrens says.

While most of Ehrens’ memories of the day come from the statements she gave to the police, what she recounted 12 years ago was clear: “He just started shooting all of my friends and classmates,” Ehrens tells PEOPLE. “He shot my teacher [Victoria Soto] and then he was going to shoot me, but [Jesse Lewis] who did not make it screamed at us that either his gun was jammed or he needed to reload, and that we needed to get out of there and run. So that’s what five of us did. I bumped into him on the way out.”

Related: 9 Years After Sandy Hook, Families Share Sorrow and How They're Keeping Victims' Legacies Alive

With only one month off of school and “not really” being given work up until third grade, Ehrens says growing up was “very hard.”

“You never really got the option to have a normal childhood,” the 17-year-old says. “I kind of needed one person to just see me as a kid and not someone who was through a very traumatic event.”

Ehrens — who “has struggled really badly with survivors' guilt” — spends a lot of time at the memorial built for her classmates near where their elementary school once stood. “If I have nothing to do, if I'm feeling down or anything, I'll just walk down to the memorial and see all my friends,” she says. “Maybe, this sounds lame, talk to them, I guess. But not always.”

Matt Holden, 17

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Matt Holden

Matt Holden’s strongest memories come from being reunited with his mom in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

“My mom came running up to me crying, held my head in her hands, and I had never seen my mom cry before,” he tells PEOPLE. “So seeing my mom in such raw, raw emotion was what really told me, ‘Oh no, something's gone horribly wrong.’ ”

Holden, who also remembers hiding in cubbies in his classroom in the school not far from the gunman while a custodian told them to shut the door, strives to keep his friends' memories alive, especially at graduation.

“Seeing how we're here and they're not, it really does remind you of what we might have lost,” he says. “That's why we do this all, so that our friends, those who should be here right now, their loss doesn't go in vain.”

Related: Sandy Hook Dad Responds to Texas School Shooting: 'Sadly, I Know the Unspeakable Pain'

Grace Fischer, 18

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Grace Fischer

Anjelica Jardiel

Grace Fischer

For Grace Fischer, healing hasn’t been linear.

“I definitely had some issues with really loud noises,” the 18-year-old tells PEOPLE. “In seventh grade, there was a bomb threat or some kind of threat to the [new] Sandy Hook Elementary School on the anniversary and so they had to evacuate. So things like that trigger me and make me emotional.”

While she continues to recover, still, Fischer is grateful for the community she has in Newtown. “We’re all there for each other, even people that weren’t at the school. Everyone being there for each other, everyone understanding what people have been through, it's a very tight community and I'm definitely happy that we have that here.”

Lilly Wasilnak, 17

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Anjelica Jardiel </a></p> Lilly Wasilnak

Anjelica Jardiel

Lilly Wasilnak

Lily Wasilnak shared a classroom with Fischer when the shooting occurred, and for the 17-year-old, that has led to a deeper bond. “There’s just a different connection you have with the people who were there, especially Grace being in the same room we both know what the other one went through," she says.

It is hard for Wasilnak to put a finger on what changed that day. “For me, this is all I’ve ever known,” she tells PEOPLE. “Obviously there was some stuff to be worked out in therapy, but there’s some things you can’t undo.”

Graduating involves complicated feelings, too.

"Even with graduation it is happy, but it's sad," she says. "I think it's hard too because a lot of adults especially are telling us how we're supposed to feel and it's about you, you're supposed to be happy, but it's like, no — it's happy, but you can't forget about this."

Wasilnak has turned her sorrow into action against gun violence: “It was really hard for me as a kid growing up being like, ‘Why did I survive and they didn't?’ — when they had these fantastic lives ahead of them, but I learned how to turn that around and be like, ‘Okay, well I did survive, so I need to do something with this and I can't just die with them’ … Everything I do is for them.”

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