Grieving Has Just Begun in Newtown

St. Charles Patch editor shares his own perspective on a deadly shooting 20 years ago and how its aftermath relates to what is unfolding at Sandy Hook School.

A part of me died, I think, amid all the blood that spilled on a sunny Sunday morning 20 years ago when the devil came calling on a church in Colorado.

John Miller was not truly the devil, of course, but what he did on Aug. 23, 1992, was clearly evil. He opened his visit to the First Free Methodist Church of Fort Collins’ second morning service in an argument with Valerie, whose divorce from him recently had been finalized. Asked to step outside the church, they headed toward the parking lot, an off-duty cop who attended the church trailing. As always, the handgun at Mike Swihart’s side created a visible bulge beneath his sport coat.

I was in the church kitchen when the gunfire began. I heard about a dozen reports, then a pause. I ran outside, immediately smelling the gun smoke. John was writhing on the blacktop, and Mike was standing maybe 30 feet away with a look of surprise on his face; he held one hand to his right shoulder, the other over his lower left abdomen. As I approached, I saw the blood welling up between his fingers.

Ray Michelina joined me in supporting Mike. Nearly at my feet I saw Valerie’s eyes staring up at me, rolling from side to side as her head also lolled back and forth. Another member of our church, a nurse, worked futilely to treat the two massive gunshot wounds in Valerie’s chest. The coroner later would say she died instantly. I never believed him.

John would die later that day in the hospital. Police said he had three clips with the 9mm pistol he had brought to the church that morning. Had Mike not been there to intervene, it would have been much worse.

Mike would undergo surgery, and despite the severity of his wounds, he would recover in near-record time.

I could go on about this, but I won’t. My point is to demonstrate that even as time has taken the edge off the pain and grief from that glimpse into hell, my memory retains details I wish I had never seen. What I’ve recalled here barely scratches the surface of my recollections of that day.

So when news broke Dec. 14 about Sandy Hook School, my mind’s eye already was flashing through the slide show of my past experience — no less horrible albeit much smaller in scope than the horror in Newtown, Conn.

Late in the day, as I heard the final tally, tears came to my eyes — but not so much for the 20 children and six adults who had been slain. Their pain, after all, was mercifully short-lived. Certainly they did not deserve to die. The loss of their precious lives should be mourned, their memories cherished. But their suffering was done.

The tears I shed were for the survivors, the families in particular, for so starts this awful season of their grief.

During this first week, they likely dealt with overwhelming emotions — anger, perhaps even rage; periods of numbness; and depression, to name a few.

Some already are facing what I called the night terrors — reliving the horror as images, memories and voices arise unbidden, replaying constantly in their minds. Mine lasted for several months afterward; sometimes these symptoms of post-traumatic stress would surprise me while I was working, reading, out for a walk.

Some will work through and learn to live with their sense of loss over the course of months, for others, the grieving process may be measured in years.

And, as if their grief at losing a loved one is not bad enough, they will face another: The loss of their own small measure of the innocence many of us imagine we possess but which we’ve never really held.

In truth, they will come to understand that we live in a violent, aggressive world, no matter how sophisticated or civilized or safe we feel.

In Newtown, Conn., pain will linger, the grieving will continue. People will grasp for “closure” but then will rue the day when they learn it is just a nebulous euphemism for learning to live with a pain that never leaves, although it might become bearable.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote two stories related to grieving, with the hope that they somehow might touch the survivors and the families of those killed in a deadly car crash in Campton Hills. In many ways, while the stories took some time to put together, they were fairly easy to write. But then I’ve been told throughout my career that the best writers write about the things they know.

I know a little something of grief. Often arriving unforeseen, it is rarely welcomed and often forced upon us. It leaves scars in its wake. For a season, we writhe in its grip, then we go on. But it seems to me that each time we encounter this relentless beast, something inside of us dies, and we are forever changed. Perhaps that is where we can find in our grief a way to effect change that matters.


  • Dec. 4, 2012: Experts: Anger Is a Natural Response to Tragedy Like Recent Fatal Crash
  • Dec. 4, 2012: Grief Process Is as Unique as the Individual

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