A breaking news bulletin, an aerial shot of the latest location, the latest church, school, or grocery store where someone in America has been gunned down. Whenever these images cross our screens, especially when they involve children, there is a visceral gut reaction. My reaction is probably different than yours. I don’t hug my child tighter or quickly turn away in horror or disgust – I remember.
I am the mother of a murdered child. While my child was taken violently at the hand of her father and not a complete stranger, she is another causality in a long and silent war. There is a battle waging in our country that creates questions that look as mangled and tangled as pieces of old crime scene tape: what does freedom really mean? What freedoms do we deem as more valuable? What are we willing to compromise? What are we willing to give up or sacrifice? And as a mother, who stands with so many other childless mothers in the shadows of the battles, I wonder in the political crossfire if we can even all agree that children’s lives and safety should be nonnegotiable.
New towns and new schools and new stories emerge with the latest shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas. However, our national attention span often fades with the news cycle and memorial hashtags and social media post jousts.
Left behind when the investigation concludes and the candlelight vigils are extinguished, are the living and breathing casualties of a kind of civil war. There are so many people walking among us with trauma and broken hearts. Some like Joe Garcia, literally die of a broken heart. His wife, fourth-grade teacher, Irma Garcia, was killed in her classroom last Tuesday in Uvalde. Two days later, a family member said that her grieving husband had died of a heart attack.
In May, I was a keynote speaker at the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s Circle of Mothers conference in Florida. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, created this event for healing and community in a club where no woman would ever seek admission. One hundred women from various ethnic, socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds with one thing in common – the violent loss of a child.
I shared my story. I listened to theirs. I walked alongside a table filled beyond reason with candles and pictures of our babies in memoriam. I shared some ideas around coping and living with our unspeakable burden, including lessons that helped me survive and go on to write my memoir, “The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness.”
Every survivor has a different story and grieves differently, but regardless of whether your heart is broken by the loss of a loved one or if you are grieving the loss of what you believe is America’s promise of inalienable rights, these ideas can hopefully offer you guiding lights along the dark and cluttered paths.
They begin with holding on to your S.P.I.R.I.T.
S – Survive
Survival looks different day to day. Honor what you need in this moment, and honor that what you need next could look completely different. Survival one day can be getting up and speaking at a memorial. It can also look like burying your head under the sheets and not moving. No one gets to define survival for you. I only ask that you try to keep going…in whatever way your heart can bear today…try.
P – Praise
This probably sounds insane. Praise? Gratitude? In the face of evil? In the middle of the worst possible nightmare, you can imagine? Yet, I promise you there are streaks of light trying to push through the darkness of your pain if you look closely. A friend who sits with you and just cries. A neighbor who mows the lawn. A family member who makes funeral arrangements when it is more than you can bear. I only had my sweet girl for seven years, yet I am grateful that I had her as long as I did.
When you are stuck in the muck of grief and despair it feels like quicksand. I found that the best way to pull myself up and take in air was to focus on something outside of myself. For me, that was starting Gabrielle’s Wings to help elementary-aged children of color in vulnerable communities in my daughter’s honor. But you don’t have to start a non-profit to make an impact. It can also be supporting a friend in need. Volunteering at church. Saying a silent prayer for someone else. Love and hope always outweigh hate and despair, so if you are brave enough to try, impacting other hearts can also help you heal your own.
R - Reflect
This may be the worst moment of your life. But what else have you overcome? How have you fought your other life’s battles in the past? Even if this feels seismically different, your tools are your tools. Your strengths are your strengths, reflect on them and call on them now.
It may take some time to get there. Months – perhaps years – but at some point, your heart will be ready. You will be able to look in the mirror and see behind the gaps of grief, spaces for new possibility. Hold on tight to that. It is where hope begins. It is your way of daring the universe to try to take you out while you keep living and loving and honoring what life can still look like.
T - Testify
We all have a story. You may have a story you wish was never written. I understand that too.
But someday, your story may save someone else. Your story matters. What you do with the time you have left matters. No one can take that away from you.
We have just commemorated our first Memorial Day in 20 years where America wasn’t at war.
This weekend, President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden both did the traditional visit to Arlington National Cemetery and walked through a schoolyard where handmade crosses have once again become a surreal memorial of our internal national battle. There is so little we seem to agree on in our partisan environment today, but we must somehow come to terms with one fundamental truth: freedom is never free.