An Open Letter to Families Who Lost Loved Ones in the DC Navy Yard Mass Shooting

(This is reproduced from a version online by Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker)
September 16, 2013

Dear Brokenhearted,

I am so very sorry for your loss. I know your pain all too well. Six weeks ago tonight, my father was killed in a mass shooting in Pennsylvania. He was merely attending a township meeting with his neighbors. Little did I know that a phone conversation I had with him only two hours earlier – he had called to wish my oldest daughter a happy 10th birthday – would be our last.

My father, someone who was always the life of the party and the light of our lives, had his light extinguished in a senseless act of violence in Ross Township on Monday, August 5th. It is still difficult for me to type those words, let alone say them out loud, but alas, this is our new reality.

Unfortunately, this, too is your new reality. Even more frightening is that news of gun violence shattering innocent lives has, sadly, become weekly, if not daily, headlines. It’s overwhelming to reconcile the fact that there are individuals who feel justified to carry out their grievances and anger via bloodshed.

“Overwhelmed” is going to be one of the few words that will almost suffice to describe your many feelings over the next few days, weeks, and months. More likely than not, you are experiencing shock right now, interspersed with moments of panic and sheer despair. You may sit idly for hours, staring at a wall, unable to get your mind to process anything. Every phone in your house will ring and beep incessantly, with family and friends calling, texting, Facebooking, or Tweeting, to see what exactly has happened. They, too, will be incapable of wrapping their heart around the fact that your loved one, someone so important and influential as a father, husband, uncle, brother, cousin, sister, mother, daughter, wife, grandparent, aunt, friend, coworker, colleague, or customer, is simply no longer with us.

Your heart will ache with the realization that though our God may have deemed it time for your loved one to come home, we were not at all prepared to have that action carried out by an act so violent. That someone with a grievance and/or a mental illness picked up a gun and pointed it at innocent people, and that they did so with no respect for humanity, love, family, laughter, or lifetimes of memories that will forevermore be just that – memories.

Once your loved one’s name is released to the media, a new heartache will begin. Reporters will arrive at your doorstep with notebooks in hand. They will slip their business cards under your front door and leave voicemails that will sound surreal to you upon playback. You will hear mispronunciations of your loved one’s name on TV and be heartbroken again and again as you listen to 45-second sound byte summaries of his or her life set to the rhythm of a broadcaster’s cadence.

Then you may also become inundated with the “Why’s?” Why did the gunman do what he did? Why was your loved one in harm’s way? Why did he or she, like my father, choose the “wrong” door?  You will be sickeningly enthralled by news reports, will scour through online search results about the event only to be dismayed by reader comments, infuriated by ignorant and intelligent individuals alike who choose to use your family’s tragedy to set an agenda or justify criminal behavior.

You will vow to never again read reports of what happened, and promise to no longer partake in reviewing play-by-play accounts from witnesses that lead you to dream of scenarios in which things turned out differently. You will wish with all you have – all that you are – that your loved one came home that Monday night, not that you are left with a piece of your heart now missing.

And then your intellect and spirit will wane like a willow tree in the wind, shifting between sessions of practicality and emotion-driven action about which you’re unsure. You will begin doubting everything you’re feeling and how you react to things; even something as simple as writing a note like this will keep you up for hours because you’re unsure if this is “how you’re supposed to handle things” or if you should just be still.

Yet through all of the madness, grief, and inconsolable moments, there will be glimpses of hope. You will see compassion from hundreds upon hundreds of people. You will still be overwhelmed, but this time it will be from all the love, prayers, and concern showered upon you by those who care for you. And you will be enveloped not only by those you call family and friends, but also your co-workers and clients – ones you haven’t worked with in years or decades; people who attended grammar school with you; others who deliver your mail, newspaper, and packages; those who walk your dog, clean your office suite, or sit beside you at church. Even still, you’ll hear from strangers moved by news accounts, and those who you know only through social media – Facebook friends who send flowers and care packages; Twitter contacts who reach out to you via direct message everyday to make sure you’re trying your best to function among the living. People you’ve merely traded Instagram “Likes” with in the past will now post messages of encouragement that have the potential to uplift you in ways you’d never imagined.

And in those times when you can cry no longer, you will have moments of clarity. You will feel that in the end, love – not evil – will triumph. If you allow Him to embrace you, you will feel God’s grace as you hold tight to your faith that you will see your loved one again someday.

Of course, you will also return to periods of confusion and sadness; for me, today is one of those days. But you will figure out a way as each day passes to manage it the way your loved one would want you to. My father always took pride in my ability to make a living (“PD,” he called it — his acronym for “pay day”) by writing. So it is that I felt compelled to pen this letter.

Although I am far from “healed,” I do find myself gaining more and more strength and feel God’s grace increasing in abundance as each new day begins. So that is what I leave with you at this moment – strength that will overtake your despair, and grace that will sustain you through your darkest hour.

Blessings and peace,

Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker

2 Corinthians 12:9-10: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Bearing witness to the life of Mary Lumus

aging-handIt is common for people to skip the book of Numbers when they read through the Bible.  After all, it seems that, chapter after chapter, the book gives a dry and droll account of the families, clans, and tribes of Israel.

What seems like a boring list to us, however, was very meaningful to the ancients.  Even the lists of ancestral names in the New Testament–like those found in the gospels recording Jesus’ ancestry–carried great meaning.

The truth is that the ancients believed that a person’s life was enshrined and honored by the memories that a family held so dear.  Families were obligated to bear witness to the lives of their relatives in order to bring honor to the deceased.

Still today, some of us, especially clergy, bear witness to the lives of folks who pass away.  We advocate on behalf of the deceased by speaking truth about a person’s life, and we encourage people to “never forget” even one precious child of God.

And, so, in this column, dear reader, I am obligated to bear witness to the life of a person not many people knew, a person who simply loved her dog, worked hard, and finished the race of her life peacefully in Room 100 of Westberry rehab here in Conyers.

I met Ms. Mary Lumus through one of our parishioners, Denise Criswell.  Denise, who helped care for Ms. Mary over the years, encouraged us to reach out to Ms. Mary when the permanent move to Westberry was inevitable.

Ms. Mary was a very solitary person.  She had no living children (her son, a police officer in Atlanta, died years ago, only to be followed by the death of her grandson a year later).  Her siblings are deceased.  She was thrice married, but all her husbands are deceased as well.  She didn’t have a church family.

Ms. Mary described herself as a “wild child” so she neither built lasting bridges over the years nor had many bridges to burn. Instead, she quietly worked as a secretary for the state of Georgia until her retirement, and she cared for her best friend: a German Shepherd named Joey Boy.

I met Ms. Mary a little over a month ago.  Upon realizing the magnitude of Ms. Mary’s solitude, my church and I immediately set up a web of support around her.  Matt Cook, youth pastor at Milstead Baptist Church (only a mile from Westberry), committed to meet with Ms. Mary at least once a week.  Other folks stepped in to visit and pray with her.

Our church’s children made Ms. Mary cards and colorful posters that Matt delivered to her–complete with flowers and balloons–during Holy Week.

She was only one month away from turning 95 when I received news that she had passed on Friday, April 5, 2013.  Before she passed, she told Denise that she didn’t want any visitation or funeral.  She didn’t give any specific instructions for a burial.

She did, however, have a savings account for Joey Boy so that someone would have the resources to take care of him.  She had specific instructions for his care and safety.  We are thankful that Joey Boy moved into another loving home right before Ms. Mary passed.

Matt and I still find it hard to comprehend not having a funeral for one of God’s children.  So, this article seems quite appropriate.  No one, not even Ms. Mary who kept to herself the second half of her life, should die without at least some acknowledgment of her memory and dignity.

Denise and I plan to light a candle for her at Trinity Baptist sometime in mid-May.  We will have flowers on the communion table for her too.  But when all is said and done, we few who ministered to Ms. Mary–including many wonderful nurses at Westberry–were all the more blessed for knowing her.  We will miss her, and we hope that this record–like those long lists in the Bible–will be a lasting testament to a life well-lived by a very unique and precious child of God.

Childloss and Unbearable Grief

The Virgin Mary, who was told long before her son was an adult that the arrows of sorrow would pierce her own heart, is an inspiration to those who lose a child. She reminds us that we are not alone.

When I sat down with Ernest and Lacy (not their real names), I did not have much to say.  They had lost their daughter several days ago, and what can one say about the loss of a child that can make things better?  Their tears were still fresh; the Kleenex box was about half-full.

As a chaplain to senior adults in Decatur, I said what I usually say in these circumstances: “Tell me about your child.”

In between sobs and long periods of silence, Ernest and Lacy told me stories about their beloved daughter, age 63, who lost a battle with cancer.

Then Ernest and Lacy told me what I always hear from mourning parents: “A child is not supposed to go before her parents.”  This was especially heartbreaking; they both celebrated 90th birthdays just last year.

I have been serving senior adults in this capacity for nearly eight years.  I have seen almost every kind of hardship–everything from death to the grief that results from losing the ability to drive.  I sat with way too many people who lost a child or grandchild.

The fifteen minutes I spent with Ernest and Lacy, however, were among the hardest in all my ministry.  While I heard their stories, patiently sat with them in silence, and provided sacred space for them to sob, I could barely compose myself.  I almost had to excuse myself twice for fear that I, too, would not be able to control the onslaught of tears that accompanies such tragedy.

I almost burst into tears because I was realizing several things that day.  For one, it does not matter if a child is 6 or 63, she is still someone’s “little” girl or boy.

Second, there really is nothing like the loss of a son or daughter.  The emotions that come with that kind of loss are different than the grief that follows the death of a spouse or parent.  And, as a father, I could empathize with Ernest and Lacy all too closely.

There was a sermon I once read by late Episcopal priest, John Claypool, that addressed child loss.  Years ago, Claypool lost a eleven-year old daughter to leukemia.  It was a year-long battle before she passed away.

His first sermon upon returning to the pulpit was on Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  The text is an awkward one since we cannot relate to Abraham’s unflinching willingness (and where is Isaac’s mother?) in offering his son without some kind of fight.

Claypool noted that his journey with his daughter was a lot like Abraham’s trek up that mountain.  The uncertainty and the mystery of giving up such a precious life was all too familiar.  When it was time to come down the mountain, however, Claypool’s story differed from Abraham’s.

Unlike Abraham, Claypool–like Ernest and Lacy–did not get to come down that mountain with his child.  It was unbearable grief that followed such an empty-handed journey.

If I were to visit Ernest and Lacy again, I would not do anything different.  I would not try to explain away the situation.  I would not try to use cheap cliches that merely make excuses for God or try to rectify a horrible situation.

All I can do is cry with those whose loss is too much for words to describe.  All I can do is sit in silence and make a sacred, safe space that permits a deluge of tears and a runny nose.

All I can do is recall a simple fact that preacher, William Sloan Coffin, realized when he lost his son in a car accident: the fact that when Ernest and Lucy’s daughter took her last breath, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”