By now, news of the shooting in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last week is nearly ubiquitous, as is the reactionary sorrow and horror that accompany it.
Twenty perfectly innocent little children struck down before they even had a chance to live, and six adults were also killed while trying to save them. The presents left unwrapped under the tree come Christmas morning will no doubt be an unnecessary and acutely painful reminder of the violence that robbed nearly 30 families of their loved ones.
Bad things happen throughout the year, but the tragedies that hit around the holidays seem to be a little extra sad because of the emphasis of family and love put on the season. No matter your religious affiliation or feelings towards the holidays, there’s no doubt that peace on earth and goodwill toward men are more popular concepts in December than in any other month. Sometimes, though, things happen to make those emotions a little harder to feel.
Nine years ago, just a day or two closer to Christmas than the Newtown shooting, I answered one of those calls no one ever wants to get. My grandmother was on the other end, completely hysteric. Through her gasps and disjointed sentences, we learned that my aunt had suffered some sort of medical malady and was being flown from her Smithfield home to Salt Lake for emergency care.
My younger siblings were already in bed. I wanted to go to the hospital with my parents, because feeling like you’re doing something in an emotional situation is the next best thing to actually doing something, but, as the oldest, I was told to stay home just in case any of my siblings woke up. I dozed for a couple of hours before my parents got home, but when they did, no words were needed to tell me my aunt had died.
My aunt, Ann, was 46, blond and supremely talented in virtually every way. One moment she had been talking on the phone with my grandmother, and the next, literally, she was incapacitated by a brain aneurysm. Her husband was on his way home from a business trip in Wyoming, out of cell range and caught in a blinding blizzard, but the doctors were able to keep her on life support for several hours until he got there. They had no children.
Christmas was, obviously, a little less than merry and bright that year. Her presents, left unwrapped, gave us an unnecessary and painful reminder of who we had lost.
I know that isn’t even comparable to a crazed man killing 20 children in a place that should be a safe sanctuary of learning. And I know many people lose a loved one around the holidays, because death is an unavoidable and unexpected part of life. But losing Ann was a sudden and significant loss to our family.
The Christmas story itself is one of hope being brought out of despair. Mary, though not unfaithful to her betrothed, was reviled for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, but was saved by Joseph’s forgiveness and belief that she had committed no sin. Jesus was born in unfortunate, meager circumstances. And let’s not even get into narrowly escaping the murderous wrath of King Herod, who, out of fear of losing his throne, commanded that all baby boys be killed.
One thing I learned from that Christmas, albeit slowly and after much disbelief, anger and bitterness, is that of all the times of the year for something horrible to happen, Christmas is actually one of the best, not the worst. The point of Christmas is hope and love and peace — when in grief, one of the most elusive things can be peace, while love can be a balm against the pain and hope can be a bright star guiding one out of the darkness.
Like the narrator of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” after hearing of the shooting in Connecticut, and then of subsequent shootings in Alabama and Texas, and attacks in the Middle East, and famine and violence in Africa, and being reminded of the general unhappiness and hardship everywhere, I felt robbed of the Christmas spirit and the warm fuzzies that typically accompany it. And then I remembered that Christmas nine years ago, and how joy did eventually trump the sorrow, and how that happiness meant more because of what we had overcome.
It is my fervent hope that everyone affected by the Newtown tragedy, and other hardships big or small, can find the joy and peace they need this season.