Confronting the grief of empty seats as 2022 mass shootings mount

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I teach a class at a local university, and one of the first classes I teach is one I wish I had taken as a journalism student: how to interview people who have experienced trauma.

When you’re in college and considering a career in reporting, it’s natural to focus on where you hope your career will end up. Maybe you want to investigate the wrongdoings of government agencies, or write articles about notable people, or cover the national beat when it comes to technology, health, or politics. And maybe one day you will get there.

But first, you may find yourself sitting across from, or connecting with, someone who has lost someone suddenly to gun violence.

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You’ll probably find yourself at least once, if not more, I tell my students, talking to the person about the newly empty seat at their desk.

The empty seat. It seems almost a clichéd image. But if you talk to people who have experienced an unexpected loss, they will tell you about the very real pain of looking at that tangible reminder of the space they once occupied.

In a column last spring, I told you about the trauma my high school classmates and I endured after gang members (who had the wrong address) walked into a teenage birthday party and started spraying bullets from handguns and shotguns. They injured several students from my school and killed my 14-year-old classmate Blanca Garcia.

I was a child when a classmate was shot and killed. That trauma lasts.

I have forgotten many details from that time in my life; I can’t even tell you which posters hung on my bedroom walls. But the sight of her empty desk in our classroom remains a memory. It was painful to look at then, and painful to ignore. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. After the Uvalde shooting, when I was talking to a former classmate who had become an educator, he described his empathy turning into numbness: “It went away when we got to school on Monday morning and saw her empty desk. That’s when my childhood innocence disappeared.”

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An empty desk. Empty office cubicle. An empty chair. Between domestic shootings, street shootings, and mass shootings, we are a country filled with empty spaces.

Every year, journalists write stories summarizing annual homicides at regional and national levels. You will start publishing some of these pieces soon. Many of these numbers come from the records of local and federal law enforcement agencies. But because trauma spreads in a messy, widespread way, affecting not just the victims but everyone who cares for them, it’s impossible to know how many people have actually been affected by gun violence. In this way, the true toll of empty spaces is incalculable.

What we do know is that these numbers are rising at alarming rates across the country, including in horrifying fashion in two mass shootings. this month in Virginia.

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On November 13, a student gunman opened fire on a bus returning to Charlottesville from a DC field trip where he and other University of Virginia students had seen a play about Emmett Till and eaten Ethiopian food. Three student-athletes – Devin Chandler, Lavelle Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry – were killed and two other students were injured.

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Then on Tuesday, an employee shot and killed six co-workers at a Walmart in Chesapeake before turning the gun on himself. In his rampage, he took the lives of Kelly Pyle, Lorenzo Gamble, Brian Pendleton, Randall Blevins, Tyneck Johnson and Fernando Chavez-Barron. Chavez-Barron, whose name was initially withheld because of his age, was just 16 years old.

On Friday, authorities released a note found on the phone of the gunman, whose name I’m not including here to minimize attention. It was labeled “Death Note” and ended with the line: “God forgive me for what I’m about to do.”

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Authorities also revealed Friday that he had purchased the 9mm handgun used in the shooting earlier that morning. It was so easy for him. He could walk into a place with all the thoughts that would drive him to kill his associates and walk out with the ability to do that destruction.

After that shooting, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was asked if he was open to legislative solutions to prevent gun violence, and he declined to answer. He told reporters that now is not the time to discuss it.

“We’ll talk about it,” Youngkin said, according to reports. “We’re going to talk about it. Today’s not the day. It’s not the day. But it will be. And we’re going to talk about it.”

Now is the time to talk about more gun control measures. Too many families know that it is past time for us to talk about it. Delaying these talks means delaying action, which means more shooting, more death, more empty spaces.

When I decided to become a journalist, I never expected to write about shooting. But over the course of my career, I’ve written about this topic again and again — and again. I can’t tell you how many times because I can’t count all those pieces.

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I interviewed college students on the Virginia Tech campus after the mass shooting, knowing that even as they talked about the bright future, they would carry with them some of the darkness of the day.

I sat across from the mom as she talked about why she wanted lawmakers to see the autopsy photos of her 16-year-old daughter, the girl who used to text her “I looovvvvve you Mom” ​​after the shooting.

This mother wants you to see a disturbing photo of her dying daughter. Maybe it’s time to take a look.

I listened to a woman describe going on a date with her Peace Corps husband and then repeatedly telling him, “We love you,” as he lay dying after being hit by a stray bullet.

I’ve had parents break down and sob when they’ve talked about the children they lost to gun violence, and I’ve watched kids try to look brave and intact as they talk about losing the adults in their lives to gun violence. I am tired of writing these works. I also feel encouraged to continue writing these works.

As journalists, all we can do is tell you these stories. We can’t introduce legislation to help people who want to kill, make it harder to get guns, or enforce existing laws to protect people from gun violence.

We can simply talk to people about the empty seats at their desks — and, until things change, prepare future journalists to do the same.


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