The word Vigil is defined as “a period of keeping awake… to keep watch or pray.”
Monday morning, I rolled over at 5 am and picked up my phone to check the time. A small box on my phone lit up with a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas the night before, and I instantly became aware. This wasn’t a shooting in some far away place that I’d never been, this was Las Vegas, a place that had once been afar away home for me.
After my parent’s divorce, my dad had moved to Vegas, and I had a sister who still lived there now with her children. I’d spent many summers there as a teenager, seeing shows on the strip and swimming in pools. As an adult, I’ve visited Vegas dozens of times. My first relationship with a man had been long distance with a guy in Vegas. I could easily picture the crowded casinos, filled with exhausted tourists from every corner of the country all there to celebrate some birthday or new job or anniversary, all hoping for debauchery through alcohol, gambling, shows, food, and sex, all escaping life and hoping to leave it all behind when they left.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the slogan says.
And not, a mass shooting, something no one could ever escape from again. This wasn’t something that could be left there.
As I scanned through the details of the story, I began seeing social media posts about this being the “worst mass shooting in modern American history” and numbers were beginning to show that dozens were killed and hundreds injured. And then the opinions started showing up on Facebook and Twitter.
“If they had been keeping the Sabbath Day holy, those people wouldn’t have died.”
“This is what happens when we elect a misogynistic bigot like Trump and expect him to lead us!”
“Another left-wing conspiracy, another fake shooting, more Fake News for people to use in their agendas, just like Sandy Hook!”
“I blame Hillary Clinton for this! If she hadn’t divided this country like she did, things like this wouldn’t happen!”
“I can’t wait for the news to start blaming gun control laws and racism for this. Political correctness is what is wrong with our country!”
It took me a few hours to give voice to my feelings. As I went about my day, news stories kept flashing on my phone, nearly all of them about the killer. Who he was, where he came from, what was known about him, how many guns he had, what his relationships were like, who his father was, what his motives were, what his habits were. One article talked about his love of country music and gambling. And I knew the public was just eating it up, feeling titillated by the details of the life of this man who had just become one of the greatest mass murderers in American history.
But my mind went to the reality of the event itself. I’ve been to Mandalay Bay for shows and to the Aquarium, and I’ve walked the area outside of it. A bright flashy country music festival, in its third day of production. A large stage and a crowd of thirty thousand fans, all there to celebrate life and escape. They were drinking and dancing, sleeping, texting, taking photos and posting them on line, sending texts to their loved ones. And then, suddenly, gunfire. At first everyone held still and the music continued, people thinking it was electric sounds or perhaps fireworks. But as hundreds of rounds of ammunition rained down on the crowd, bullets hit targets. They flew through cowboy hats and lodged in heads and necks and chests and arms and backs and legs. And then the screaming and the running started.
For (approximately) 15 minutes, the gunfire continued. Loved ones made critical decisions to leave wounded spouses and friends behind, they scrambled to call for help and to search for missing loved ones, they launched themselves over barriers and fences to safety, they lay on the ground trying not to attract notice. They screamed, their adrenaline surged, and they texted frantic messages to people back home, not knowing if they would live or die.
As a therapist who does crisis work, I pictured talking to any one of these thousands of people later on. They would share their confusion, locked in time with the sights and sounds and images of what they witnessed, in shock and unable to get it out of their brains. Those images will stay with them for the rest of their lives, altering them forever. Tens of thousands of people, who will never again escape the feeling of what it is like to sit there helplessly as those around them are being slaughtered, a sensation generally on military veterans learn to live with.
And many were altered even more. Husbands lost wives. Wives lost husbands. A man shielded his wife from gunfire and she held his hand as she died. A cop protected someone else and yelled at his wife to run to safety, only to later learn she’d been killed. Back home, parents and kids and siblings, neighbors and co-workers and friends, began getting the news that someone they loved, who they had just seen, had been violently murdered, and for all of them, they would never be the same.
These victims, the ones who were wounded and the ones who were killed, they are real people. Teachers, veterans, police officers, students, hairdressers. They have loves and lives, homes, jobs, hopes and dreams. And in a blast of gunfire and blood, they were taken.
And somehow, unless you knew one of the victims directly, the public only wanted to know about the assassin, and to rage about their politics, and that part, that made me hurt and angry beyond belief.
So I decided to hold vigil. Instead of turning off the news because it was too painful, instead of getting lost in the psychology of a madman and mass murderer, instead of ranting about the poor morals of elected officials, instead of expressing outrage over what some celebrity did or didn’t say, I chose to remember the victims.
For two full days, I searched for names and identities. I found photos and locations. I began posting photos with brief descriptions of each person who was killed. These are the ones who deserve to be remembered, just like the victims from the Pulse shooting and from Sandy Hook and Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine. These are the lives that must remembered.
And once I set aside my outrage and replaced it with grieving, once I addressed my pain and fear and gave it voice, I realized I could start to heal, and I could start to decide what to do with this.
In today’s news cycles, we are assaulted with a barrage of things to be afraid of and outraged over, and even the biggest stories tend to cycle through every couple of days. We are no longer talking about the hurricane in Puerto Rico, yet the people there are still struggling to recovery. And by tomorrow, we will no longer be talking about Vegas, instead just shrugging it off as another shooting in a country that can’t seem to stop having mass shootings. And then we will be caught up in our outrage over the next story.
And while we constantly move forward to the next news story, there are events from the past that we still can’t escape from. This country hasn’t healed from the assassinations of JFK, or Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk, or Abraham Lincoln. We haven’t moved past 9/11, or Watergate, or McCarthyism, or Wounded Knee, or Pearl Harbor, or slavery. Will this be remembered as a time of change, or another forgotten news story?
Because for these families and victims, who will never recover, this isn’t something that can be forgotten. And what happens next time when it is my family, or yours, who is impacted?
How do we take these lessons, and how do we make change?
Those are questions that I need to answer for myself tomorrow. But today, today I grieve.