I’ve watched news footage cover national tragedies and wiped away tears at the horror of it all. But Sandy Hook reduced me to a pile in the middle of our kitchen floor, sobbing uncontrollably. I cried off and on all weekend. Five days later, I still feel so raw. I ache for the people of Newtown. Is it because I’m a teacher? A mom?
Grief has characterized the last few years of my life. It was an unforeseen result of a seemingly endless test of my faith–being unexpectedly grieved, not just for my own difficulties, but for other people’s circumstances as well. The news of the Sandy Hook shooting sent me first into shock and then reeling with emotion.
It should be that way, though. I don’t want to be unaffected by something this horrible. While I feel that genuine parental relief that my sweet girls made it home from school safely on December 14th, something inside of me will not settle. This is an atrocity—carried out against the most innocent and contagiously joyful members of our society. I don’t want to be the person who listens to the news story, feels momentarily solemn, says a prayer for those who are suffering, and changes the channel. I should grieve. We all should.
Friday night, after an emotional afternoon of picking up bits and pieces from the news, it was my turn to put my four-year-old, Emma Kate, to bed. We followed the normal routine—brushing, flushing, changing, and stalling with a little begging and bargaining mixed in for good measure. I tried to shut out what I’d seen on the news, but it hovered stubbornly above my thoughts the whole time I worked to get her to sleep. The news had just reported that the bodies of the fallen children had not yet been released to the parents. Amidst the tidal wave of reporting, that one little detail prompted flashbacks, memories of the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting, which I prefer to leave buried.
“Katie, I need you to stay with Kathy Jo. They haven’t brought Shaun out of the building,” my friend Laurie had said. She pulled me toward Kathy Jo, who gripped the railing of the wheelchair ramp outside the elementary school across the street from Wedgwood. She only released her hold on the rail to bury her face in her hands. Maybe I was in shock, but I couldn’t quite process what was happening to Kathy Jo, what had happened to her husband inside the church and why they would have to bring him out.
“Laurie, I can’t. I have to…” I gave some awful excuse and walked away, completely inept to offer any comfort or support. I had no words. I was afraid to reach out. So I didn’t.
Chaos ruled the scene. Helicopters circled. Everyone—everything—was in motion, all going in different directions. Simultaneously, people ran, walked, dropped to their knees, wandered, cried, hugged, laughed, cried more. Figures moved at varying paces to and from the church, along the sidewalks, lining the streets, in and out of groups of people. Reporters emerged to place microphones in grim faces, stunned faces, anxious and terrified faces. And voices, at all different volumes and tones, shouting, whispering, calling, screaming, praying…Have you seen so and so? Where were you? Did you hear shots? Sydney’s been hit. Sirens and lights. Cops and firemen. Life flight landed on the church lawn.
Newtown, I remember what that very dark day was like. I’m unspeakably sad for your loss.
All these years later, I cuddled next to my curly-headed little one, so blessed to share her giggles, her whispers, and her prayers. As she drifted off to sleep, I stayed in her room, images of Sandy Hook, mingled with Wedgwood memories, playing over and over in my mind. Try as I might, I couldn’t help imagining inconsolable mommies and daddies wailing over empty beds in empty, silent bedrooms. That’s when the ache started.
My husband and I just recently moved to Arkansas to start a new chapter in ministry. We have encountered a concoction of joy and discouragement lately. It’s been an odd mix of excitement and fear–a sobering realization that God has entrusted some of His Kingdom work to the Beasleys (of all people), an agonizingly stressful past the point of no return leap of faith. After watching some of the news coverage over the shooting, I asked Todd through tears, “How could we ever minister to people who are suffering like that?” When I ask that kind of question, like I’m barely clinging to my faith, my husband always seems to know how to answer. “I don’t know exactly. By being as much like Jesus to them as possible.”
That’s the kind of thing I saw in the aftermath of Wedgwood—people living like Jesus. People with deep wounds and searing pain, who should have been angry with God, declaring the hope that they have in the Lord Jesus. Kathy Jo followed Shawn’s casket down the aisle at his memorial service, with her hands in the air in worship, while we sang, “Shout to the Lord all the earth, let us sing. Power and majesty, praise to the King.” Later she spoke of the hope that she has. I remember clearly that she said, “I’m going to see Jesus. I get to see Shawn again.”
Al Meredith, our pastor at Wedgwood, said too many timely and wise things during that period of mourning than I can possibly write about here. One thing that I’ve never forgotten, and I often quote, was his response to the question in a television interview (I think with Katie Couric), “Where was God when this happened?” Without a pause he declared, “On His throne where He always is.”
As I was reading through headlines on Sunday, I realized that Brother Al’s answer is just part of the explanation. Someone from Newtown had told a reporter that “Christmas is cancelled”. This saddened me so much because I love Christmas, and I know all those sweet children who lived through that nightmare last Friday love their holidays. I realize that this person was speaking about the scope of the tragedy and indicating that it would be impossible to enjoy a holiday at this point. I certainly understand that the timing of this horrible act will make Christmas difficult for a lot of people for a lot of years to come. But Brother Al’s words came back to me, as they often do, and I thought about how Christmas means so much more to me now than it did just a few years ago. Now that I’ve been through these few years of trials, I love Jesus more than ever. Not in spite of grief, but because of grief, I recognize the scope of what Jesus has done for me.
Christmas is the day that we celebrate the part of God that did leave the throne. The Father sent His Word, His only Son, to leave Heaven, to put on skin and bones and live among us. When we encounter loss, we talk about how, when we get to Heaven, we’ll know everything and understand everything. Then we won’t want to come back here to earth, a place cursed by sin. Heaven is the absence of all these things that cause us despair. Still, Jesus did this in the reverse order–He knew everything about the horrors of earthly life—disease, war, cruelty, hate, inexplicable massacres—and yet he chose to come, live side by side with humanity, and absorb all that awfulness on the cross.
Without Christmas, there would be no cross. And without our God who authored salvation through the cross, we would all become like these gunmen—heartless and hopeless. When I started down this road of grief, I craved joy and hope so much. God, I pray that you give Newtown hope.
A gunman took the lives of seven people at Wedgwood Baptist Church on September 15, 1999. On September 19th, God’s people met to worship and reclaim their sanctuary. Brother Al’s children’s sermon hit the mark. He used hard-boiled eggs and Humpty Dumpty to explain our hope to the children:
Our church has had a great fall. But unlike Humpty Dumpty, we know how to get up. What all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do, God can do. God can put us back together again.
My mother has told me many times, “Grief is work, and the work has to be done.” She’s right, and if you don’t do your work, it just piles up and gets harder to weed through. I’m at a loss as to how to be like Jesus for Newtown. Arkansas is a long way from there. But I do know that Jesus would mourn with those who mourn, and He had compassion for those in pain. I just wish I could do more. I’m so sorry especially to families of the victims. I’m so sorry to every child, teacher, and staff member at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Grief is hard work, and it’s going to take time.
God, I love Newtown and I know You do, too. Please put their broken hearts together again.
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I have put my hope in your word.