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With Sympathy

There are no sympathy cards for murder-suicides. I’ve checked. You can congratulate a friend on his divorce, inform your spouse you’re moving out, grieve the loss of a pet, and pointedly tell an adversary “Up yours!” But nowhere could I find a card that reads “I am so sorry to hear your daughter shot and killed your grandson then turned the gun on herself.”

Based on almost daily headlines about despondent fathers/husbands who have taken the lives of their families instead of facing an impoverished future, or delusional gunmen who seek immortality through mass murders, it seems logical there would be a variety of designs available.

I never thought I would be shopping for one of these myself, not for anyone I know, and certainly not for the bereaved mother of my friend Sherri*. In my naïve experience, this is something that happens only on the six o’ clock news, to families of gang bangers or drug addicts or the mentally deranged. It happens to “them,” not “us.” This does not happen to people like Sherri’s family, and yet . . .

News reports reveal scant details: Sherri got into a disagreement with her twenty-five-year-old nephew, Brian, over an unknown issue. Their argument escalated until Sherri got a gun from somewhere in the house, shot and killed Brian, then shot and killed herself.

It is hard enough to accept that Sherri and Brian are “gone” without having to imagine the horrific scenario that ended their lives. “This is not the Sherri I know,” I kept repeating when I first heard the news. Sherri was spiritual and believed in an afterlife in which we pay for our earthly transgressions. And she worked with law enforcement officers to locate missing persons. Sometimes they found the victims alive and well; sometimes their investigations led to the remnants of unspeakable crimes. In either case, she knew how important it was to help the victims’ families achieve closure. Sherri would want closure for her family.

A mutual friend who spoke with Sherri six days before her murder-suicide told me Sherri’s career was flourishing and she was planning a move to a new city. She was optimistic and excited about the near and distant future. It is inconceivable that she would throw it away by taking Brian’s life, or her own.

I will never know why she chose her tragic path. Sherri’s act of violence was not premeditated; she left behind neither a suicide note or diary detailing her plans. I know she had struggled with depression in recent years and had tried different medications, but, by all accounts, Sherri had been doing well.

I am not a doctor, nor am I well-versed in psychiatry or chemistry. I don’t know what Sherri needed or how she was being treated. I don’t know if a bad pill or bad news or bad karma set her off that day. But I need to condemn someone or something for this tragedy. I want to point my finger at mental illness or lax gun laws or a toxic chemical combination or a negligent doctor, because the one person I cannot blame is Sherri.

Instead of sending a ready-made card to Sherri’s mom/Brian’s grandmother, I tried to put what I was feeling into words on a plain sheet of stationery. I wanted to focus on positive images, not dredge up the gory ending of two beautiful lives. So I shared with her my memories of my last get-together with Sherri and Brian: over chili, salad, and homemade cornbread, a small gathering of friends told stories, discussed current events, laughed a lot, and lifted each other up.

“I hope memories like these bring you comfort during this difficult time,” I wrote in closing, frustrated that my words were so woefully inadequate for the circumstances. “I am so sorry for your losses.”

If I am to learn anything from this experience, perhaps it is to respond with compassion when I read tomorrow’ s headlines, not only for the victims and their grieving families, but also for the perpetrators and their grieving families. Perhaps I can shift my condemnation from the individuals to the circumstances, such as a faltering economy or a society that pushes quick-fix pills.

Compassion may be the only good thing that comes out of these tragic events, and I doubt that a glossy, scripted greeting card can adequately express it. Certainly there is nothing I can buy that will ease the heartbreak of losing a beloved family member and friend.

*Names have been changed to protect the family’ s privacy.