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June 09, 2013 9:22 AM Your morning heartbreak: post-Newtown, how victims’ families cope

By Kathleen Geier

Sunday’s Washington Post features an article that will break your heart. Written by Eli Saslow, it’s a brilliant piece of journalism titled “After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet.” The article focuses on one family, Mark and Jackie Barden, whose 7-year old son, Daniel, was murdered in the Newtown massacre. Part of it focuses on the devastating grief they cope with every day. The other part is about their anti-gun activism, and how they stoically soldier on with it, despite their deep frustration and disappointment with a profoundly dysfunctional political system that gives no quarter to reasonable restrictions on guns, in spite of overwhelming popular support.

Here’s an excerpt, which details some of the activist work the Bardens have done:

The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.

Here’s one of the piece’s many wrenching moments, as the Bardens, in a restaurant, watch the birthday celebration of a little boy they know, who was one of their son’s classmates:

But instead they sat at the table and watched as the waiter brought the boy a gigantic waffle covered in powdered sugar, berries and whipped cream. They watched as the waiter stuck a candle into the center of that waffle, and as the mother sang “Happy Birthday” and took a picture with her phone. They watched as the boy swept his fingers through the whipped cream, smearing it across his mouth and face while his mother laughed. “You’re so silly,” she said.
This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom.

Saslow’s unshowy empathy and writerly eye for arresting detail make this story a journalistic masterpiece. I’ve often wondered how people who have suffered such horrific, senseless losses just get through the day. My own family suffered a tragic loss when my beloved 7-year old niece, Allison Geier, died suddenly in 2007. Allison died in her sleep, of a freak illness. As you might imagine, it was the worst tragedy that had ever happened to our family, and the anguish of Allison’s parents, sister, and brother was nearly unbearable. My brother’s family survived it, but they are not, and will never be, the same. There’s a deep sadness there that wasn’t there before, and that never totally goes away for long. And there’s a hole in all of our hearts where Allison used to be.

I can’t imagine how they would have coped if Allison had died, not because of a tragic and unavoidable illness, but because some monster had murdered her in cold blood. In cases like that, how do the victims’ families live without being consumed by rage, bitterness, and madness? If you are extraordinarily decent and public-spirited people like the Bardens, one of the things you do is to make the difficult decision not to give in to your baser instincts, but to channel your grief into productive activity that might help create a better world.

If you’re the Bardens, you travel, you lobby lawmakers, you make speeches, you bite your tongue countless times, you graciously endure endless “tributes” to your loved one that, as often as not, are more painful than healing. And then, when your cause comes up for a vote — you lose! Or at least, thus far, the entire nation has lost, where changing gun policy is concerned. But there’s reason believe that with changing demographics, the tide will eventually turn on that one.

Anyway, definitely go read the piece, and have a box of Kleenex handy. It’s good to see that the Washington Post can be useful for something other than Wonkblog, for a change.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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