"To breathe after losing a child to gun violence is to willingly agree to inhale tiny shards of glass into your lungs," writes Márquez-Greene
Nelba Mårquez-Greene
Credit: Celeste Sloman

For most Americans, the idea of child loss is too painful to fathom. This is more than an idea for me, though. It is my daily reality.

Seven years ago, I buried a child in the Sandy Hook School massacre. My 6-year-old daughter, 19 of her schoolmates and six educators were killed. With relentless coverage, the shock and horror of a nation, a President visibly shaken and an international community lying in wait — surely change would come after Newtown.

But it didn’t. At least, not like I expected. Ana wasn’t all I would bury. I buried my sense of safety and the belief that our elected officials would do the right thing without being dragged to it.

I watched as men and women who promised to represent the best interests of their constituents instead represented the special interests of their donors.

I watched, as these same men and women used scripture and weaponized their faith against making even the slightest changes towards gun safety. They said, “I am praying for you,” but every action betrayed them.

Exodus 32:9 reads, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.” It was true then as we fled Egypt. It is true now of us as we flee gun violence.

My husband, Jimmy, and I are high school sweethearts. We met at band camp. Gun violence was a regular backdrop to my childhood, but it never made headlines. At 5, I survived my own attempted rape and murder. My father, unsatisfied with the justice system, drove me around our neighborhood looking for the guy who did it. Just me, him and his gun.

Jimmy and I worked tirelessly to make better lives for our children. Our hopes were destroyed in four months. That’s how long we’d lived in Newtown before Ana was killed. There is no such thing as a community exempt from gun violence. Not now. And for many communities, not for a long time.

Police violence, suicides, unintentional shootings of children, domestic crimes and all related events leave behind the same pain as the mass shootings that are more likely to catch our attention. It is a pain forever rooted in the soul of someone who has lived it. It is the same trauma. And our response to this pain and trauma should not ever be dependent on novelty or body count. Our empathy not ever doled out by zip code.

As Newtown faced its first snowstorm of the season this December just a few short days before the 7th anniversary, I drove to the cemetery to lay a blanket on Ana’s stone. I worry about her getting too cold. People still stop me in the parking lots of grocery stores and say, “I wish I had gotten involved earlier. I will never forget Ana Grace. Thank you for your voice.”

I bend under the weight of the guilt that comes from knowing my daughter is remembered while so many others are forgotten.

Black and brown mothers shouldn’t need a dossier of their child’s accomplishments to win America’s compassion after tragedy. And no family should have to plead for post-tragedy support. Every life lost to gun violence leaves behind families and communities — and many go through it without the basics in grief care.

Every day, 100 Americans are shot and killed, and hundreds more are wounded. Many more live having witnessed an event. This is not the price we pay for our country’s freedom. This is the price we pay for being stiff necked.

When I buried Ana, I buried an ill-placed hope in the powerful. But I replaced it with a hope in us, and the belief that it would be our compassion and connectedness that would drive the changes required for action. Essential components to advocacy.

Politicians won’t save us.

The strength of the NRA and those who refuse to budge might seem Goliath — but we are David. And as enormous and seemingly impenetrable as Goliath was, eventually he too came down. We are David — humanity our slingshot.

Back in the cemetery in Newtown, I realized I didn’t have the blanket in the trunk of the car. I beat myself up for this. What kind of mother forgets a blanket for her child? I took off my parka — the next warmest thing in my possession — and laid it on her stone. To breathe after losing a child to gun violence is to willingly agree to inhale tiny shards of glass into your lungs. I took that breath. I stared at my parka on the stone. I wiped my faced and I asked for her forgiveness. “I need my parka, Ana,” I whispered. “My slingshot’s in the right pocket.”

Nelba Márquez-Greene is a licensed marriage and family therapist, Director of Community Advancement at Central Connecticut State University and the founder of The Ana Grace Project. She is mother to Isaiah and Ana and wife to Jimmy. She still lives in Newtown, Conn.