On the afternoon of April 16th, 2007, I was sitting outside the Starbucks in Five Points, drinking a cup of coffee, eating a bag of sweet potato chips, and killing time before my grad school class that evening. When my phone rang, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see it was my cousin Liz. She and I worked at a summer camp together which was starting in a few weeks, so I assumed she was calling to talk over some camp business.
When I answered, she said, “Have you heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech this morning?”
“Yes,” I said. Everyone had. It had been all over the news all day.
“You know that’s where Ryan Clark goes, right?” Ryan was a very dear mutual friend of ours from camp. He was our Music Director and had become like family to Liz and me, as well as many others.
“Ryan was shot this morning. And he did pass away.”
I don’t remember much about the next few minutes. Everything took on a surreal quality, like I was staring down at my life through a very long, thin tube. I know that I stood up in the middle of the crowded street, burst into tears, and screamed “Are you serious?!” into the phone. I know I took off running down the street, tears streaming from my face and sobs bursting from my chest, sprinting back to my car, unsure of where exactly I was going but knowing I needed to get somewhere, anywhere, away from this unfathomable reality. And I know for an absolute certainty that my world came to a jarring, screeching halt in that moment.
Why? The question rang like bells in my head for weeks. How? What purpose? Why him? Why now? Why such violence? Why? Why? Why? The question would wake me up at night. It would force me to walk out of class in tears, seeking solitude in the nearest public restroom. It would pull be out of line at the grocery store, because there was yet another magazine cover with his face on it, and I just couldn’t be confronted with a face I would never see again, a smile I would never share again. Not here, not in public.
A national tragedy is a loss unlike any other. There’s no room to mourn in private, like there usually is when a loved one passes away. This is News, and everyone wants to talk about it all the time for weeks. You can’t turn on a radio or television without being reminded that the person you love is gone. You can’t escape from thinking about it because, on a national scale, it’s What We’re All Thinking About Right Now. The person you love is no longer yours, but the nation’s, a celebrity to be discussed and analyzed and speculated about. It doesn’t matter that you knew them, because now the nation knows them, and that’s what’s most important.
But then, weeks later, when you’re finally ready to talk about your own grief, your own unending, gut-wrenching sadness, everyone else has moved on to the next major news story. Your heartbreak is yesterday’s news. And just when you need that support most, you’re often left alone in your grief.
Any time a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, CT happens, my heart gets ripped out all over again. I remember those terrifying
days of coming to terms with the finality of it all. I remember the burden of the constant media attention to what felt, for me, like such a personal moment. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday was especially hard because most of the losses were children. I lost a dear friend, which was tremendously hard, but I didn’t lose a child. I can only imagine the magnitude of grief those families are feeling. Violent and senseless don’t begin to cover it.
It is our nature as humans to, soon after a tragedy like this say, “Now what?” Where do we go from here? How to we make sense of the senseless and give some kind of meaning to the experience? Everyone chooses their own path. Some will choose to discuss gun laws, a meaningful and worthwhile debate. Others will focus on supporting the families and school community directly affected. Still others will put energy into improving mental health services in hopes of preventing future events like this. And others will, for a while at least, shut down. They will run from the grief and feelings of powerlessness and go on about their lives hoping that if they pretend nothing happened, it might come true one day.
For many months after the Virginia Tech shootings, I was one of the latter. I told very few people about my profound loss. I avoided all media and sat quietly in my grief. I reached out only to my camp family, because they understood my pain. They felt it, too, exactly as I did, but many of them lived far away, and many of my hometown friends had no idea what I was feeling. It was a horribly lonely time.
Then one day, something shifted. Whether I got tired of feeling so alone or finally got strong enough and healed enough to do something different, I don’t know. But I needed to do something. I needed for Ryan’s death to not be in vain. I needed him to be more than a fading headline. I needed to honor his memory in some way.
So I chose to be more like him. The things that I admired most about Ryan were his compassion, his openness, his sense of humor, and his integrity. But above all else, I admired his authenticity. He was totally and completely himself. Genuine, unique, unafraid. I made a conscious decision to live more like Ryan had lived and to inspire others to do the same. A few months after his death, I enrolled in yoga teacher training, something I’d been wanted to do for a long time but had been too afraid to attempt. When the day came to choose the core message of our teaching approach, I shared with my fellow trainees about how Ryan’s loss had affected me so deeply. In his honor, I chose as my core message “authenticity.” In every class I teach, I try to convey the message that it’s okay to be completely yourself, because that’s what Ryan taught me.
In the weeks and months to come, we will all try to make sense of the horrendous events in Newtown in our own ways. Like most people, I have no answers for why this happened and no words of wisdom. But as someone who’s been directly touched by a national tragedy, I hope that you will continue to remember the victim’s families and friends long after the headlines fade. They surely appreciate the public support now, but many may not be in a position to receive it. And they will need support even more months from now, after the camera crews leave and they must continue on with daily life without they ones they loved. I encourage you to keep them in your prayers for a long time to come.
I also hope we can all find ways to honor the victims in our own lives. Honor Vicki Soto, the brave first-grade teacher who hid her students in closets and died protecting them, by standing up for what you believe in, no matter the cost. Honor grieving parents by paying special attention to the children in your life, making sure they know they’re loved. And perhaps honor the entire community of Newtown, who have now been touched by violence in an unbelievably deep way, by creating peace in all ways in your own life.
As we close the year and move through this sacred holiday season, may all beings everywhere live in peace, and may our lives in some way contribute to that peace. Lokah Samasta Sukino Bhavantu.