The earth-shattering shock of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School continues to reverberate throughout communities and homes all over America. As the weeks go on, rallies, vigils and proposed legislation will offer opportunities for us to find a way forward. In the midst of these expressions of activism, however, there are still the lingering questions of how we grapple with the inexplicable death of children, those sweet, innocent ones we mourn over and over again.
The first time I encountered the death of a small child was when I was called upon to help a family bury a premature baby. The death was an abstraction until the casket was removed from the hearse, at which point it became obvious that the abyss separating life from justice was real. We built a bridge over that dark space with words of comfort, with shared grief, with our silent presence. “We are here. You will not collapse. Promise.”
The first time I encountered the death of a child was in high school, when a classmate committed suicide. He shot himself with his father’s gun, in bed, late one night. He was Catholic, so he was made up quite well for the wake. The day after the funeral, our sophomore biology teacher made some remark in class about the dead boy looking like a science experiment. Three students ran from the class in tears. The teacher should have been fired for his stupidity and insensitivity. But we were all too stressed out to organize an effort to censure him.
The first time I encountered death’s ability to scare a child for life was one summer night, decades ago. 1970. There’s Mom at the kitchen window. Water running in the sink; crickets outside in the yard; apples ripening, hanging low on the trees, ready. Her back is to us, and she’s crying.
“Thinking of my dad,” she said. And the pastoral landscape of youth was ripped thoroughly through, its horizons twisted into the junk metal of a violent and permanent alteration: the ghost of a man, an illness and a gun. Mom was six in 1939, when a deranged man looking to get back his job murdered her father. A part of her died that day, and she carried that death with her for the span of her entire life. Hers was the trauma never healed.