Don’t Look Away
Nearly ten years ago, I attended Ana Marquez-Greene’s funeral.
Ana was one of the twenty children and six adults killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I got the first news alert that there’d been a school shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut the afternoon it happened. I tried to avoid the news for the rest of the day, but the horror snuck in little by little. By the time I went to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep as my mind raced with terrible imaginings.
When I learned that Ana’s funeral would be held at First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield, just up the road from where I grew up on Blue Hills Avenue, I felt I had a duty to attend. I couldn’t prevent her death or do anything to bring comfort to her grieving family. I couldn’t pass laws. But I could at least bear witness to this crime and face the brutal reality of her death.
Since then, school shootings and other mass shootings have continued to be commonplace. No matter how hard I tried, I became numb to them. Part of it was the sheer number of massacres. Part of it was the fury I felt that national leaders refused to take any action. Connecticut passed a host of gun control laws in the wake of Sandy Hook, and mercifully, we haven’t had an incident like that or the Hartford Distributors Shooting since. I grew tired of boiling over whenever I heard the same shrill arguments against inaction.
But mostly I was just exhausted. I left Facebook a few years ago because I was tired of having my news stream showing mass shootings and police murders over and over. I wasn’t feeling rage and motivation — I felt sad and defeated. Ana’s tiny coffin was burned into my mind. Even such visceral examples of the cost of all this violence had done nothing to stop it.
I looked away. I mean, what’s the point of torturing yourself with bad news from places you’ve never been? From my perspective, Parkland, Florida might as well be as far away as Christchurch, New Zealand in terms of my ability to actually change anything. Anytime I saw the familiar headlines on CNN or the boilerplate lamentations of national grief, I scrolled past them.
The atrocity of May 24th has shocked me out of that complacency. At the time of writing this, 21 people were slaughtered in a school, including 19 children. I found out through text — I knew it had to be something uniquely awful to get a text instead of stumbling across it on Twitter. I felt the same pit of my stomach as with Sandy Hook. For a moment I considered turning off my phone and repeating what I’d tried to do a decade ago.
I didn’t. I opened the news. I read the reports. And I’ve experienced that pain anew: the pain of a parent who grieves for others who’ve lost their children in the most unthinkable way, and the pain of praying to an apparently indifferent universe that the same doesn’t happen to your own.
How do I respond now? I can’t even make the grossly inadequate gesture of attending a child’s funeral. Yes, my state is safer today, but aside from sending money to politicians who want gun control (politicians of a party which controls the House, Senate and White House and still can’t make anything happen, by the way), what can I do about Texas? Should I just go back to ignoring far away places?
No. What I can do is write about this. I chose not to write about my experience at Ana’s funeral for a long time, because it felt exploitive. When I finally did, it was in an essay about how there’s no God for me, but that I hope there is one for her. Now I write to say that this must stop — everywhere — not just Connecticut. We need federal gun control.
I won’t look away, because people are dying and I don’t want to attend any more children’s funerals.
Jamil Ragland is a writer from the Hartford area. His work deals with politics, race and culture. Jamil lives in Hartford with his son.