What it feels like to grieve a mass shooting
The morning of Sunday, October 1, found me grieving the unexpected deaths of three friends within the previous seven days. The week had grown me accustomed to the taste of tears and wet sleeves. I easily and truly grieved and mourned with and for those who grieved and mourned.
Sunday evening, however, found me forgetting how to cry. At 10:44 p.m. a text message brought me word of an active shooter. I stayed up all night in the darkness gathering facts on my cell phone. Refresh screen. Updates. Videos. Reports. Refresh screen. The rhythm of the gunshots soon lodged in my brain. Refresh screen.
Learning to cry in the aftermath of something so shocking and unbelievable is actually learning how to pray, how to view through God’s lens, how to remind a broken heart that it isn’t stone, how to embrace stillness, how to accept the limited quantity of my tears, how to accept reality and forbid myself to file it under fiction.
The following days brought dry skin, dry mouth, dry eyes. My city. My dirt and gravel. My home. The mayor held a prayer gathering in front of City Hall. Dozens of local pastors surrounded the mayor. One by one, they stepped into the sunshine and offered unhindered laments. The group burst out in a chorus of “How Great Is Our God.”
More TV. More Internet. Developments and statistics peppered the late night news. Channel 5 cut to a field reporter on the southern end of the Strip where believers from all over the valley had spontaneously gathered. In the darkness the circle of pilgrims called out in a never-ending refrain of “How Great Is Our God.” The camera lingered. Back in the studio, the anchor stared into her monitor. Signing off for the night, she marveled, “Beautiful. That song. We heard that same song this morning at the mayor’s gathering. That song.”
Dry skin, dry mouth, dry eyes. More TV. More Internet. More facts. Blood everywhere. My church held a prayer vigil. Fifty-eight candles stunned me as they wailed in the dim room. Warm wax filled the air and wept down the sides of the tables. Around the valley the giant plastic marquees of neighborhood casinos sported new clothes. Stripped of their frantic phrases about players’ club promos and steak and lobster specials, they now wore only two words: VEGAS STRONG. At the post office and gas station we all looked at each other with big eyes and a nod of the head. At The Lotus, I slurped my wonton soup in silence, its warmth soothing my soul as it trickled down my insides. The waitress pointed at my quilted purse and stared, “I love the colors. The colors so . . . so . . . make feel happy. The shooting. So sad.”
Later I parked across the street from our “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. An Elvis in a gold lamè jacket and I reverently crossed the crosswalk together. Mandalay Bay towered in the background. Fifty-eight white wooden crosses. The quantity disarmed me. My broken heart skipped a beat.
I walked and walked and walked and walked and walked down the line of crosses. The artist still remained on site, writing a name on each cross. I helped identify a photo to ensure that the artist penned the correct name on his cross. “His name is Sonny Melton.” Why do I know his name? I will forever know his name. He covered his wife and got shot. The TV told me that. “S-O-N-N-Y M-E-L-T-O-N,” I called out the letters as the artist inscribed them on the cross. “His name is . . . Her name is . . . That man . . .”
Just up the road lay hallowed ground. Spray paint markings dotted the blacktop, sidewalks, and poles. Red gates overturned, pandemonium still hung in the air over the untouched scene. Jagged broken windows loomed way up high on the building and detained my eyes. Definitely not fiction.
As I drove down Las Vegas Boulevard, the LED behemoths knelt in reverence like stallions on the sidelines of a royal funeral procession. The eye-popping spectrums of HD video graphics cloaked themselves in black and white stillness.
“Our prayers for the victims. Our gratitude for the brave first responders.”
“Counseling is available for those seeking assistance.”
“Pray for Las Vegas.”
In their call to prayer, the signs taught me how to pray. Their stillness stilled me.
Learning to cry in the aftermath left me without answers—my city and I are worn. I have to recognize that God sees and bears much more than I can see or bear. God made the people whom I grieve. He made them. The Creator mourns his murdered and broken beloveds. And in the midst of his own grief, he comforts me and grieves for me.
Walking this dry and thirsty terrain, I witness how God takes our finite tears and joins them with his infinite sobs to make rivers in the desert. Sometimes this partnership looks like sackcloth and ashes and tastes like tears and wet sleeves. But sometimes it sounds like stillness and smells like the warm wax of fifty-eight candles.
Cover image by Isaac Davis.