MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One week after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans are engaged in an impassioned debate about how to prevent mass killings in the future. That debate includes talk of gun control and improved mental health care. But NPR digital news reporter Linton Weeks knows there are also quieter questions of how to respond on a personal level to the suffering of any parent who has lost a child.
LINTON WEEKS, BYLINE: No one is an expert when it comes to these most horrific, most out-of-the-natural-order-of-things disasters. Tragically, my wife, Jan, and I have experience. Our two beautiful, brilliant and ebullient sons, Stone and Holt, were killed in the summer of 2009. They were sitting in stopped traffic on a Virginia interstate highway when an out of control tractor trailer crashed into their car. Our sons were just young men, 24 and 20, and in one cruelest instant, we lost all of our children.
As bereaved parents ourselves, Jan and I feel deep empathy and compassion for any parent who loses a child of any age - and especially now for all the parents of those killed in Newtown. We have an intense knowledge of the grief, the horror, the confusion, the total shock and disbelief those mothers and fathers are feeling. We share their all-consuming pain and that deepest of human longings for it simply to not be true. We cry for the lost children of Newtown, and we cry for their parents.
But what can you say to someone who has lost a child? I am so sorry is a start. And we've discovered it is also possibly all there is to say. At least, that's the way we feel. And what can you do? There are many things people have done for us since Holt and Stone were killed that have been helpful and meaningful. The gestures are simple and yet they are profound because of the courage and restraint and, yes, the love it takes to do them.
On hearing the news that summer, dear friends of our boys and of ours came to us to cry with us. A large group of friends - some we knew better than others - set up a dinner delivery system that fed Jan and me for months and months. Some cleaned up the yard. A few have come to the house one at a time to help Jan address thank-you notes. Others have left thoughtful gifts at our doorsteps, such as fresh flowers, a homemade moss garden, heart-shaped rocks. And friends simply gave us long, deeply felt hugs and held us as we sobbed inconsolably.
Above all, the most important thing people have done - and still do for Jan and me - is to let us know they are thinking of Stone and of Holt. In little ways, such as posting messages on Facebook, texting or emailing us on birthdays and holidays, sharing memories out of the blue. And in big ways, such as establishing memorials at our sons' high schools and colleges. Many people helped us create a foundation to honor the beautiful lives that our sons lived, and many continue to support it.
During the past 3 1/2 years, people have also said to us: I just can't imagine. But we ask everyone to try to imagine. Those tender people who have imagination and compassion have sat quietly with us and just listened.
As Presbyterian minister and author Eugene Peterson told NPR following the Newtown shootings: There are no adages that explain or would make any difference to the suffering. He also advises, don't say anything, just hold their hand, hug them and just stay around for an hour or so in silence and just be there. That's what bereaved parents need, he says, at times like this.
Actually, it's what Jan and I will need for the rest of our lives. The world may recover from the deaths of our children. We won't. We will never really get over losing Holt and Stone and all that they lost. How could we?
And we imagine that while the public debates rage on, the parents of Newtown, like us, will need love and support and room to grieve in their own ways and at their own pace for a long, long, very long time.
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BLOCK: Linton Weeks is a reporter for NPR Digital News. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.