On the evening after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School broke our nation's heart, we happened to be taking our five-year old granddaughter Erin to see Coeur d' Alene, Idaho's local theater production of The Little Drummer Boy.
Like most of the other young children, she dressed in festive velvet and lace, her dark hair beribboned, her face animated with the joy and innocence of a child at Christmas. Holding her hand, and seeing every other parent in the audience treasuring their child, made imagining the inconsolable pain of mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and grandparents 3000 miles away poignantly palpable. How will they ever recover from such senseless violence?
I remember such shock and grief after learning our 25-year-old daughter Krista was killed when a speeding bus plunged over a mountain cliff in Bolivia. A young woman with a radiant spirit, she was volunteering with her husband Aaron with indigenous families in a remote village. Her death shattered our hearts in as many shards as the broken glass littering the mountain crevasse. This began our journey of living for years in liminal space, an "in-between" time from life as we assumed it would unfold, and the daily reality of learning to live with hearts wrenched by sorrow.
On television, I heard one of the Newtown residents say, "Our world changed today." It reminded me of what many told us after Krista's death. "Everything changes after the death of a child." I remember resisting such assertions. There were some things I knew I wanted to keep....a loving marriage and family, a living faith, deep friendships, and a college teaching career that I enjoyed. Would a daughter's death kill all of this?
At Krista's memorial service, I saw a college student whose family had endured the horrific murder of her 2-year-old nephew, Devon. "Molly, how have you and your family survived such a loss," I asked. She paused, and then said, "Your joys become more intense." Her words reminded me of the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, who said, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain." At our daughter's memorial fourteen years ago, these words held only abstract meaning. Mostly I prayed that somehow I could just keep my heart open and not shut off to the world. I wanted to trust in God's promise "to be with us."Needing to understand how parents ever endure such overwhelming loss led me to talk with other grieving parents. I wanted to hear how they lived with any sense of hope and resilience. We all needed immense strength and even creativity to survive while walking in the maelstrom of grief, something we feel bereft of in the early acute rawness of pain. They generously added their voices into the silence which often surrounds suffering. A moveable feast of questions guided their unchosen journey. Will I feel this bad forever? Will it be possible to ever savor life again? How can I keep a broken heart open? Are there ways to remember a child that are life-affirming? Why do people grieve so differently? Can one face grief in transformative and intentional ways? Where was God's protective hand?
After the time of profound grieving, most parents I talked with said their emergence into deeper acceptance and peace came gradually. They spoke of living with expanded hearts, and a growing kinship with others who experience all of the losses that life may bring. I also began to notice there's even more to this inseparable quality of joy and sorrow that Gibran affirms. Our family discovered, as many other parents shared, how our love for a child has potential to be a resource for solace, even creativity, within our broken hearts. We do not seek closure, another illusionary image popularized in society. Nor does any parent, sibling, or spouse want to forget one who will live in our hearts forever.
If we stay open to this wellspring of love that once graced our daily lives, we can journey through our desolation and find inner strength. To the astonishment of many parents, they spoke of slowly discovering the healing energy in the reservoir of love that underlies all great loss. This became a dynamic resource for healing. I already heard such a spirit emerging from the father of Emilie Parker, who shared with the world the beauty of his daughter's loving life which brought their family such joy. He also extended grace to the shooter's family in recognition of their unique loss.
As citizens in the Newtown community gather in grief, I have been grateful for the pauses. President Obama's silence and tears echoed the nation's. Pastors, priests, and rabbis have been wonderfully wise to not give spiritual bromides, but to listen and comfort with their presence, sharing their own genuine shock. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said in his column, "The Loss of Innocents," even Dostoyevsky, a Christian, didn't try to give theological answers about God's goodness when Ivan Karamazov raged with questions about the suffering of innocent children. Instead, Dostoyevsky developed characters in the Brothers Karamazov who demonstrated how love transcends suffering.
Families in grief face pivotal choices. As they repattern the fabric of their days, will they give themselves the time to grieve, allowing time to mourn and patiently attend to sorrow? Will they stay open to the love that surrounds them? Will they eventually find ways for their love to empower their lives?
There is also an opportunity for all of us as we grieve with the families. In what ways can we offer the transcendent love that Dostoyevsky encourages as a powerful response to suffering? Will we continue our prayers, offered from around the nation, believing they matter? As citizens, will we engage in the complex public policy questions around gun control and mental health support?
If we know families in Newtown, or families in our own towns immersed in grief, will we be listeners, and provide practical care? Will we give families the time grief needs? Parents often spoke of how gestures of love from family, friends, even strangers helped them get through their dark days. I still remember a brief note, sent months after Krista's death, consoling us with the ancient words from Psalm 51, "Heart shattered lives...by no means escape God's notice." We know such acts of kindness carried us during many vulnerable days and months.
Now many years later, I recognize there certainly is truth to the statement that "Everything changes after the death of a child." Within two years, I left my college teaching profession after we founded the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship as a tangible way to honor Krista's life. Now, many hours in my days revolve around this choice. Yet much remained. Though husbands and wives often grieve differently, we kept the love and respect that allowed us our own journey. Friends sustained us; faith gave us solace. But more than exterior changes were the interior changes as we learned to live with sorrow and love intertwined. We have been united by a kinship with the many others we encounter who live with losses. We share the invitation and challenge to trust the Biblical words that "God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of sound mind."
Already the residents of Newtown are demonstrating the empowering characteristics of compassion, strength, intention, and resolve that mark their community. But in this bleak midwinter week, as families and mourners lower the little caskets of each child lost, and each adult slain, I will join with our nation in Newtown's days of lament.
Nothing will replace the shattering loss of one we have loved. Yet, this is not the end of the story. Out of such colossal evil, one senses that great goodness will also emerge. Perhaps even astonish us. From the community of Newtown, and their grieving families, we will likely see glimpses of the truth that love never ever ends
Linda Hunt, Co-founder
The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship