On Friday, December 14th, Sandy Hook Elementary experienced a tragedy that is creating a new normal for the town of Newtown, Connecticut.
The very same day as the school shootings I worked a viewing at a small Mennonite church in Gap, PA. As with most Mennonite churches, the pastor is bi-vocational. This specific pastor works as a part-time pastor and full-time salesman for an agricultural feed company. The area that he covers includes Bart Township, the same area that experienced the Amish school shootings in 2006.
We walked in to the church, set up the casket and flowers and I broke the news to the pastor about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. His countenance fell as he immediately connected the Sandy Hook shooting to the Amish School shooting. “I’ve been the salesman there for years. All the Amish families are my friends. Just the other day one of the mothers who lost a daughter told me she’s reminded of her daughter every time she sees children coming home from school.”
This, like all tragedy, finds a life of its own. Friday, December 14th marks the first day of a new normal for Newtown, Connecticut. In many ways, this new normal is a sad birth. In this blog post, I want to look at the practical side of how the next couple days and weeks will look for Newtown.
TRAUMA RESPONSE: Thankfully, there are professionals who are being tasked this very moment in setting up response teams. The American Red Cross, various hospice programs and the American Psychological Association all have large scale trauma response teams who are trained to counsel children and parents in psychological and bereavement support, organize support groups and guide the community back to some type of semblance. The response teams will evaluate, support, offer guidance and help as the children, parents and teachers begin this dark journey.
Children do grieve. As long as there are relationships formed, there’s grief. And while the general public is not very adept at understanding a child’s ability to grasp death, those from the APA, Red Cross and hospice programs are. All the children will experience traumatic grief (CTG), many will experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the hope will be that these children, like the youth from Columbine, will bond together and find deep fellowship in their grief, sorrow and pain.
Pragmatic questions like, “When do we restart school?” and “When should I go back to work?” will be guided by these wonderful angels from the response teams.
BODY IDENTIFICATION AND FAMILY NOTIFICATION: By deduction, the families know whether or not their son or daughter, husband or wife is dead by the simple fact that they didn’t come home. But, their son or daughter, husband or wife may be so … that the bodies have yet to be identified.
Some families may be called into the hospital to visually identify their loved ones, other bodies may be too distorted and will need to be identified through other, more technical means. All the bodies will be studied, some autopsied, some given for organ donation and one – the shooters – will be looked upon with contempt by all who view him.
Once identified, the families will start the funeral arrangements.
FUNERAL ANNOUNCEMENTS: There’s only one funeral home in Newtown, Connecticut. And while I doubt the Honan Funeral Home will bury all the victims and the shooter, they will probably bury many of them. From what I can tell by the obituary section on their website, the Honan Funeral Home is not a very large funeral home. In fact, they’ve only advertised 12 obituaries in the past year. They will need help as they could very well have twice their yearly volume in one week. And thankfully, per this article, other surrounding funeral directors are offering their help to Honan.
Any funeral home and funeral director who works with these families will need their own type of support over the months to come. Most of us don’t enter this business because we’re cold hearted; rather, we enter it because we’re generally big hearted. These tragedies hurt us as well. Embalming the body of an elementary school student that has been autopsied and shot is enough to permanently disturb anyone, including a seasoned funeral director.
Questions of “how will this family pay for this funeral?” are likely taken off the table, either by the funeral director’s generosity or by nonprofits like Bury a Child (run by my friend Nancy Burban, who lives in a neighboring town) who are already donating caskets and raising funds for funeral expenses of the children (UPDATE: Per Nancy, all the funds have been raised to cover the funeral expenses of the victims).
Police and other first responders will carry a burden that no man or woman should ever carry. They have seen images no one should ever see.
Pastors, too, will experience many sleepless nights as they prepare words for an unspeakable event.
THE NEAR FUTURE: The funerals will be large, sad and no doubt full of horrible theology explaining how we can’t question God, how God will turn this into good, etc. Yet, despite the horrible theology, many churches will find themselves full. Churches will comfort some families. The community will become more closely knit. Memorials and monuments will be built to honor the memory of the children and the teachers. School will eventually reconvene. On December 14th, 2013 CNN will hold a special marking the one year anniversary of the shootings. And in five years the world will forget.
But the pain will linger. The grief will remain in the hearts of the parents and their families. Time will not heal these wounds. This is the new normal for Newtown, Connecticut.
If you need to be brought up-to-date on 17 year old Trayvon Martin’s death, here’s a link.
Back in 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to her theory that there are five stages of grief:
Since 1969, her stage theory has been questioned, expanded, reapplied and farther qualified, but many psychologists still see these stages as a framework for identifying the outworking of bereavement of all kinds. These stages are a framework of identification, not a timeline that produces expectation or even explanation.
Everyone deals with grief differently, at their own pace, on their own terms because grief is based on the individual connection to the deceased. It’s a relative process that works within some loosely defined framework of stages.
And those stages are greatly impeded when death occurs through injustice.
Denial quickly moves to anger. And anger becomes a way of life. Or — more accurately — anger becomes the way of a tragic death.
People can move out of the angry stage when death is “natural”. Granted, I’m not sure if there’s ever any death that is inherently natural; but, when compared to suicide, homicide or an accidental manner of death, a “natural” death at least provides a less combative explanation.
As awful as cancer is, we have something impersonal to hate and blame. We blame “cancer”, and as angry as we might feel it just doesn’t fully compare to the anger that we feel when the thing to blame for death is a person. When we have a person and a name to blame for death, anger becomes a beast.
Homicides (and suicides) have this uncanny ability to produce an insatiable anger towards the killer. And when that death is complicated by legal jargon, racial tension and the obvious injustice of having an older man shoot a 17 year old, the anger is amplified to the milieu we are witnessing today with Trayvon Martin’s death.
Trayvon’s death was a real tragedy.
It will produce a death of life within his family as they fight, fight, fight for a justice they’ll never fully see. It will produce death of life for his friends who will draw racial lines the size of the Great Wall of China. It will produce death in all the surrounding neighborhoods as all will distrust all.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin is not only the death of a young man, but the death waves that will be produced as we all get stuck on anger. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death is that it will produce exponential death. It’s the sad result of injustice. And it’s why God loves righteousness.
Lois Anne Purnell grew up as a “missionary kid”. Her parents were missionaries for many years in Thailand and Lois and her siblings spent most of their childhood overseas. When Lois was a teenager, her family moved back to the United States.
Lois’ younger brother Tom was a good friend of mine from church and he introduced us in 1982. After 3 years of dating, we were married in May of 1985. Our plan was that we would finish college together and then try to start a family.
Lois was 26 and working as a sales representative for Kinemetrics in Pasadena, California. She was also attending Cal State LA, part-time, working towards a Master’s Degree in Psychology. I was attending Cal Poly Pomona working towards my bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Biology. We were a young couple living in a small rental back house in Pasadena.
Lois was an intelligent, genuine, loving wife with a contagious smile. She had a good sense of humor and a soft heart for animals, even skunks. Her joy was playing the piano and singing her favorite hymns and songs. Growing up in Thailand, Lois adopted a deep appreciation for the Thai culture and loved cooking great Thai dishes. Deep down, Lois always felt that Thailand was home. Her love for God and people was evident in the way she connected with individuals with warmth and sincere interest.
It was October 18, 1988 and the baseball play-offs were occurring for the American and National leagues. Most baseball loyalists spent the evening home watching the game on TV. That evening, Lois went out to get a baby shower gift for a friend at work at a local mall. I was at Cal Poly working on a research paper. I called home at around 9 pm that night from school. No one answered so I left a message that I was still at school.
By the time I arrived home at around 9:30 pm, there was melted ice cream on the counter and a note written by Lois saying she would be back soon from the Pasadena Mall. It was unlike Lois to be late. I had first called her parents, who lived locally. Her mother informed me she had not stopped by or seen Lois that evening. I then called my parents who lived about 20 minutes away to see if she had stopped by to see them. They had not heard from her either.
I then thought she might be at her work, possibly picking up something she forgot. As I drove to her work, my legs began to shake and I could feel the dread that something was not right. My first thought was that she might have been in a car accident. But I didn’t want to consider the worst.
When I returned to the house, I phoned my mother-in-law who came immediately over to the house after I told her that I could not find Lois. While at my house, my mother-in-law called the police to report her missing. She began to call area hospitals to see if anyone had been brought in from a car accident.
I went to the underground parking lot at the mall to see if her car was there, but there was no sign of her or our vehicle. When I returned to the house, my mother-in-law was told that a missing person report could not be filed until 48 hours later. By this time, it was close to 11:00 pm. A detective somehow got ear of our phone calls to police and area hospitals. He had seen a woman brought in to one of the hospitals, filed as a Jane Doe. The detective called back and asked to speak to me about the description of my wife and what she wore that day. I continued to believe that she was in a car accident. I described her flowered jumpsuit that she wore that day and other details. The detective informed me that he would come to the house within the hour.
It seemed like eternity waiting for the detectives to arrive. It wasn’t until about 1:00 am when the detectives finally arrived. We were informed that Lois had been the victim of homicide. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They had me identify some blood stained white rose bud earrings and a bracelet that I had given her for a birthday present. They asked me what kind of car we drove and the license plate number. Then they told me that she had been shot in the head and left to die under a bridge near the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
Police that happened to be patrolling that area spotted her body lying in the dirt, barely breathing. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. They asked me if I could go to the police station to positively identify her body. I was in shock and could not bring myself to face her dead body. My brother in-law, Mark volunteered to identify her body. On October 18th, our worst nightmare came true. Family members and some friends were with us that night as we all wept in disbelief.
The night seemed to never end and my mom stayed with me until morning. The bed was void of Lois’ presence as I wished I could just fall asleep and wake up from this living nightmare.
There were no words, no Bible versus, no theology, no comfort that night, just a tremendous sense of loss knowing I would never see Lois on this earth again. Yes, there was knowledge of hope that someday I would see her again, nevertheless, it didn’t take away the empty space I felt at my core, a longing to see her one more time. There was also the question that was on all of our minds, “Why, why Lois?”
The following day I woke up in a fog. I went to her closet to smell her robe, her slippers, anything that would give me a sense of her presence.
Devastated, it was nearly impossible to eat for days. I had lost nearly 10 lbs within a few weeks.
The day after her murder, detectives came to the house to tell us that they had caught one of the suspects. He was spotted with our stolen car by a rookie police officer. The patrolling officer followed the suspect to his residence. A “back-up” was dispatched as the officer monitored the suspect. He was arrested in his apartment with Lois’ credit cards and other evidence. Through him, the other suspect was apprehended soon after.
Detectives interrogated the suspects following their arrest. Taped confessions were made to their kidnapping Lois at the mall at gunpoint, robbing her, sexually and physically assaulting her, raping her, and finally shooting her in the head while she knelt on her knees, begging for her life. Her plea to the kidnappers was, “just take me home.” Before she was shot, the two men argued over who would kill her. Because of the rape and the possibility of Lois identifying them, they decided to end her life.
This was just the beginning of over three years of criminal trials, each suspect tried separately. During that time, our families attended every trial day, holding back our anger, pain, and suffering, as we relived details and evidence of that one heinous night.
At 27 years old, I never thought I would be planning a funeral for my wife. Hundreds of people attended her funeral and many more who knew of her internationally gave their condolences. Our pastor at the time spoke about the spiritual aspect of her death, that even though she is gone from this world, the spark of God’s love would not be extinguished here on earth.
Many people were well intentioned with their encouragement, however, the people who helped me the most were the ones who just listened. My counselor was very instrumental in my healing, helping me process my feelings and thoughts without judgment or scripture antidotes to make me feel better about the tragedy that occurred. My therapist just validated my process of grief and sorrow.
Other well-intentioned Christians tried to explain to me that God would show me the purpose for my wife’s death or make something good of it. One couple had the audacity to say that it was because of our sin that Lois was killed. Some Christians will come up with crazy explanations for things they really don’t understand or can’t fix through a spiritual and theological explanation. Can good come out of tragedy? Yes. Does that minimize the loss? The answer for me is no. There was no logical explanation for what happened to Lois. My faith in God would never be the same. This side of heaven, I will never get over what happened to my dear wife who meant everything to me.
I have continued to live life. I have forgiven the two men who killed my wife in that I no longer allow them power over my mind, body or spirit. I have resolved that God will be their judge and deal with them in His way.
I am now a Licensed Professional Counselor in Oregon, happily re-married, and have two beautiful girls. Our firstborn daughter was given the middle name of Lois. My gracious wife wanted to honor Lois by passing her name down to our child.
Over the years, I have learned much about grief and my faith, both through my own experience and also through the experiences of my clients. It’s a privilege to walk with them through their loss, just as my counselor had walked with me. I love my profession and have come to a deep appreciation for our humanity.
Often, people are judged by what they see on the outside, but there’s so much more to a person than what we see on the surface. Everybody has a story and at some point in our lives, we will all experience loss. I believe that best thing we can do, the best way we can love, is to be fully present with those who grieve and listen with our hearts.
I first heard the abstract of Tony’s story from a comment he left at my “Even Jesus Wept” feature at Relevant Magazine. I asked him if he’d be willing to share the whole story in a blog post and he graciously obliged.
After reading Tony’s story how do you feel? It’s such a heavy story that I encourage you to process your reaction.