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Last Week’s Tragedy in Tucson – Explaining the Unexplainable

Stephanie Koehler’s niece Hayley Pakkala prays at a make-shift memorial in Tucson.

by Stephanie Koehler

Less that 21 days ago, I was visiting my family for the holidays, standing just a few feet away from where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen other innocent people were tragically gunned down in Tucson, Arizona.

The shopping center – in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains — is a short distance from my parents’ home; the apartment where I lived for 4 years; the school where my sister teaches kindergarten; and the house where she is raising her young family.  It houses the grocery store, drug store, nail salon, bakery and bank that are all part of daily life for many people I know and love.  It is on the way to – and from – everything in their lives.

So, as the news alerts about the shooting came across my blackberry – a wave of terror went through me.

On any given day it could have been my mom and dad at the adjacent bakery planning to wander over to thank their Representative for her thoughtful and diligent leadership.  On any given day it could have been my sister and 10-year-old niece at the nail salon next door or the Starbucks on the corner.  On any given day my 14-year old nephew would have asked his grandma to indulge his love of government and history by taking him to see the Congresswoman.  On any given day any of them would have been stopping by the grocery store on a Saturday morning.

As I finally reached my sister – who was avoiding the traffic jam created by the police roadblocks on her regularly traveled route to her daughter’s ballet class – and as she described the helicopters roaring overhead — a horrible reality hit me….

How do you tell a 10 year-old child that a classmate, a neighbor, or a dance-mate has been gunned down in an assassination attempt of a Congresswoman?  How do you tell her 14 year-old brother who looks with great pride at the Founding Fathers of our Democracy, that by representing the citizens of your country you are putting your life at risk.  In the days since our nation’s most recent tragedy – I keep asking myself… how do you explain hate and madness to a child, when you don’t even understand it yourself?  How do you explain the unexplainable?

It seems impossible to imagine that we find ourselves forced to frequently discuss the horrible side of humanity to these innocent minds.  Just a year ago, I was standing at the Newseum in Washington, DC when my niece looked at the “Mississippi Burning” exhibit and asked: “what is the KKK?”  The best analogy I could come up with was a playground bully.  A frightening thought when you consider the recent culture of our schoolyards.

This past summer, on a visit to my mother’s childhood home in Oklahoma, these same children visited the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing – again, learning about the intersection of madness and hate – and how intimately it can affect our lives.  They also learned about the magnificent tree that survived against all odds and the triumph of the human spirit and the power of heroic actions.

For those of us who live in SW Virginia, the reality of the most recent shooting in Tucson and the circumstances of the gunman are all too real – and regardless of how far away – they are all too personal.  Our hearts grieve for a community of citizens and the scars this will leave on everyone.

Feeling compelled to connect – partly to mourn her own loss and sadness – and partly so she can best help her children and elementary school students cope – my sister took her family to the memorial outside the University Medical Center where the victims are fighting for their lives.  While her goal was to find the words – as an adult – to explain the unexplainable – I believe it’s my young niece who said it best in an email to me when they returned home:

“Today I went to the memorial for the shooting and today I am thankful for what I have — my health, and love from friends and family. This tragedy in Tucson will keep my thoughts full and our prayers for them who are wounded or have lost their lives. We will keep them in our prayers forever and for always. The memorial is not sad, but it is very peaceful and full of hope. I can’t hide from tragedy, cause that’s the only way I will learn.  We are hoping that they will heal and live their lives — great like we get to now.”  ~ Hailey Pakkala of Tucson.  Age 10.

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