I was fifteen years old when two kids opened fire at a Colorado high school and savagely murdered thirteen people. I don’t remember many details about that day, but I haven’t been able to hear or speak the word “Columbine” since without experiencing full-body chills and waves of nausea.
Two and a half years later, I woke up to the news that two hijacked planes obliterated the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Another had hit the Pentagon and yet another intended for the Capitol Building crashed into a Pennsylvania field. An estimated 3,000 people were killed on September 11, and no matter how many years go by, I will always have a visceral reaction to any mention of that day.
The second I woke up and checked my phone this morning, I knew I would be adding one more life-altering calendar date to the growing list of chronological events that have permanently affected how I, and countless others, grieve and get through tragedy.
Like me, many of you probably logged on to Facebook, flipped on the television, or tuned into your morning radio show to discover that a heavily armed gunman killed 12 people at an Aurora, CO midnight movie screening and injured 59 others.
It’s an odd thing when something so horrific and gruesome occurs, yet it has no immediate impact on your everyday reality. I live almost 1,000 miles from Colorado. I’ve never even visited. I don’t have a friend or family member living anywhere near Aurora, and truth be told, I didn’t know a thing about it until today. And yet, I’ve been going about my day feeling as though I’ve been punched in the stomach and all the air has been sucked from my lungs.
We all cope with tragedy in different ways, and there’s no rule book for how to properly process an event so far-removed from our lives, yet so overwhelmingly devastating. Some of us are going to cry about it, and others are going to laugh through it with off-color jokes. Some of us are going to experience consuming rage, and others won’t feel a thing at all.
Personally, I’m still overcoming the shock of today’s news. I know the real work of unpacking the tangle of emotions, thoughts, and feelings hasn’t begun yet. But watching the details unfold through breaking reports, I’ve discovered one consistent component in my grieving process that has remained constant through Columbine, 9/11, and now the Aurora shooting: I don’t want to see a murderer’s face.
I didn’t realize how strong this conviction was until the Aurora shooter’s face flashed on my television screen several hours ago. His eyes mercilessly stared me down, and I cringed at the sight of his unsettling smirk. I had to look away, turn the TV off, and leave the room. But there he was again. All over the news sites, inundating my Facebook feed. His name, his history, the details of his life were all being rehashed and repeated ad nauseum, everywhere.
For some people, this sort of intimate knowledge of a killer helps them cope. They want to understand. They want to get inside the murderer’s head and try to comprehend how in the world a person could commit such an atrocity. They want to look into his eyes and see if they can find a hint of humanity, or any sign of sanity.
I don’t. I can’t. And personally, it’s gut-wrenching to imagine that we’re giving the person responsible for such a horrendous act attention—publicity, even. I don’t want to mention his name, and I don’t want to share and circulate his image or life story.
But this is my personal process. This is how I can bear to deal with today’s news: by tuning parts of it out. How others will cope is entirely up to them. Some people may boycott The Dark Knight Rises in tribute to the moviegoers who lost their lives. Others might make a special effort to see the film in solidarity. Others still will light candles, say prayers, seek out friends and family. Whatever you do, do what feels right for you. Despite the different ways we’re coping, we’re all going through it together.