Noah Pozner was curious about the whole wide world and loved superheroes. Emilie Parker loved to draw and dance. Charlotte Bacon had long curly red hair and a lively personality. Chase Kowalski loved to play outside and ride his bike.
It feels wrong to speak of children in the past tense. Their lives are just unfolding, with so many years ahead. But the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last Friday stopped short the lives of 20 young children, erasing their future, breaking the natural order of birth and death—and breaking the hearts of their families and community.
President Barack Obama brushed away tears as he spoke the day of the shooting. In his struggle for composure, he joined the rest of us, stunned and sorrowed by the news. Houses of worship opened their doors and became sanctuaries for those who needed a quiet place to reflect and pray, to grieve and find comfort. Whether you lived in Connecticut or California, had children or not, the horrific event pulled you out of your small gripes and daily tasks to confront unspeakable tragedy and unanswerable questions.
News commentators speculated about the motives of the shooter and causes of the crime. Autism, bad parenting, guns, divorce—on and on they went, filling airtime in the long spaces between releases of new information. But they had no answers.
Amid their words, we heard agonizing details. When the parents of the victims got the news as they gathered in a nearby fire station, their wailing could be heard outside.
Twelve hours after the shooting, the dead children were still inside the school, lying where they’d fallen because the building was a crime scene, and the investigation wasn’t finished.
Then there were the pictures of the surviving children holding hands and closing their eyes, as they’d been told, so they wouldn’t see the carnage while police led them through the school to the outside.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, one of my former college professors, lost a son suddenly several years ago and wrote about his death in a book, Lament for a Son. “There’s a hole in the world now,” Wolterstorff writes. “In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing. … the world is emptier. My son is gone. Only a hole remains, a void, a gap, never to be filled.”
As a man of faith, Wolterstorff struggles to reconcile God with suffering. In the end he has no easy answers but believes God is with him in his despair. “We’re in it together,” he says. “Every act of evil extracts a tear from God, every plunge into anguish extracts a sob from God.”
And he addresses the basic question: What can you say to someone who is suffering?
His answer: “What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”
These words hold especially true today. Let us be close to the suffering families in Connecticut. Let us sit beside them on their mourning bench and hold them tight in our hearts.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.