Grasping for Hope in the Emotional Free Fall of a School Shooting

“I love you, son. Have a great day, and God bless.”

With these words and a kiss, my sixteen-year-old son slid out of the passenger seat. “You too, mom, and thanks for the ride. Love you, God bless.”

I watched him walk into the front doors of his high school, Monday morning, February 27th, 2012, at 7:20 am.

On the drive home, I called my husband, hoping he hadn’t left for work yet. I wanted him to ride back up to the school with me to pick up our older son’s car. Our senior had a zero-period class and arrived at school an hour before our other two kids.

“No problem. I can get to work a few minutes late.”

We live down the street, so by 7:32 am we were back at the school. As we approached, we saw two young males on the sidewalk across from the school. I noticed both boys crying, so I rolled down my window to speak to one of them.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

Tears streamed down his ashen face. The raw agony of his answer pierced the frigid air, “There’s a kid shooting people in the cafeteria! We ran for our lives!”

Nothing prepares a parent for the horror and torment of a school shooting. We have no choice but to flail and grasp for anything tangible to break our fall down the emotional cliff. In an instant, fear grabbed hold of me with two fists and hurled me over the edge. The boy’s words crystalized, hanging in his billowing breath. Nausea consumed me; a steel beam crashed into my chest, the reverberation collapsing my lungs. I wailed in silence; spoken words lay trapped beneath the avalanche of dread cascading through my insides.


The location suddenly escaped my scrambled thoughts, pushing forth a violent cry, “Oh my God.” Our daughter, a freshman, had first period in the cafeteria.

I whipped my head around to look at my husband, only to see terror shrouding his face, the same haunting expression invading me. But then we both burst into tears, remembering as if on God’s cue, that our daughter wasn’t at school this day. A last-minute decision made the night before to let her skip; a celebration of the end of the basketball season with senior teammates. I had fought the decision against my husband, but he won the argument. Turns out God won the war. Evil wouldn’t steal our daughter this day.

We were unable to speak the unthinkable what-ifs. Instead, I grabbed hold of the blessing of our daughter’s safety, a branch of comfort interrupting my emotional free fall. But the relief was short-lived because our boys were somewhere in the building. The bark tore away skin as comfort slid from my grip. Fear snarled back in my face; a hurricane of emotion slamming me against the rock face. I couldn’t breathe.

My husband pulled up to the intersection caddy-corner to the school. As we inched towards the stop sign, a squad car blocked us in—the first police presence on the scene. Whether by fate or accident, we got stuck watching the entire nightmare unfold in real-time. We called our boys. No answers. Trembling and heaving sobs erupted from the numbness within me. Somehow, I managed to press lifeless appendages against a glass screen as I texted both our sons; willing their safety.

Our sixteen-year-old responded, “I’m safe.” Two words enabled me to dig my heels into the soil, slowing my emotional decent. Tears of relief soaked my bones as I texted back, “I love you.”

I called our oldest son again. “Mom, I’m in chemistry class. Why are you calling me?” He hadn’t read my text and now needed a translator to make sense of my shrieking gibberish. My son didn’t believe me.

“Listen to me! A shooter is in the cafeteria!” I had no choice but to yell. He needed to hear me. Despite the school’s lockdown status, he figured it was a drill and remained unconvinced. I pleaded with him to believe, explaining how we came back up to the school to get his car and saw what was happening. “Stay in your room and keep the door locked. Please. I love you.”

A minute after I hung up, he texted. Several armed policemen came into his classroom, proving the legitimacy of the lockdown. “I love you, mom. I’m safe. Everything is going to be okay.”

Everything is going to be okay.

My 18-year-old’s words echoed inside me. His courage and consolation exemplifying the synergy of love between us, giving me strength despite tremendous pain. Time slowed enough to temper my hysteria, allowing me to shove the awe deep into my mom heart. I craved his fortitude, but fear choked me. While trying to reach our kids, chaos erupted everywhere around us. Black, unmarked vehicles raced through the intersection in front of us: S.W.A.T. team. I stopped counting after ten.

Then ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, helicopters. A kaleidoscope of flashing lights formed a watercolor painting through my tears. Chilling sirens and pulsing copter engines broke the sound barrier from every angle. The weight of the spectacle bore down on me,  and anxiety gave me a healthy shove, sending me deeper down the cliffside. Unrestrained thoughts consumed me: What if our daughter hadn’t skipped today? What if I hadn’t given in and said yes? What if I caused my baby girl’s death? What if my boys were still in danger? I couldn’t stop the madness in my head.

The raging scene outside snapped me back to reality. Although my 16-year-old texted that he was safe, I needed to hear his voice. I tried calling again.

“Hi, mom, don’t cry.” I inhaled the warmth of his whisper. “I’m safe. We’re locked in our room. Everything’s going to be okay. We aren’t supposed to be talking on our phone, so I need to hang up. I love you.”

Everything is going to be okay.

The synergy of love still on display—more courage tossed out from our sophomore. Both my hands clutched a vine; a glimmer of hope suspending me long enough to press more parent pride into my heart. Although mere minutes passed, the stress aged my nerves in years. Fear taxed every organ and cellular structure. My husband and I began frantic calls and texts to family and friends before the cell service overloaded.

We knew countless kids in the building, causing another round of what if scenarios to clamor for my attention. Most of the first-period class in the cafeteria consisted of freshman. Our daughter’s peers, children we loved as our own. We carried the same love for our boy’s circle of friends, too many to count. I lost my grip on hope, the vine searing my fingers in the process. A primal scream burst forth from my insides, “God, why is this happening? Please, Lord, help us all.”

I called our parish priest. By God’s grace, he answered. Out of control whaling bellowed from my mouth about the severity of the situation. I begged him to tell everyone to pray, “Everyone must pray. Please.”

He promised to share the news and tried to comfort me, “I’m so sorry, Shelby. Everything is going to be okay.”

Everything is going to be okay.

His words slowed the momentum of my descent, proving the synergy of love transcends familial ties. I absorbed the faith of my priest friend. Then we waited. Watched. Prayed. Cried ourselves raw. Sitting helplessly for what seemed like an eternity. By this time cars lined every street surrounding the school. Each packed with terrified parents wanting to see, hear, and embrace their children.

News reports on the radio gave conflicting reports. We heard the potential of two shooters. Imagining a second shooter paralyzed us. What if he was roaming the school picking random classrooms to terrorize? What I saw next iced my veins. Bodies on stretchers carried out the side door of the school and loaded into ambulances. The image branded itself into my brain. I tumbled further into despair. “Please, God. Make this stop. Let those people be alive.”

Time ticked way at an excruciating pace. We tried to keep in contact with our boys, but texts failed to send or receive. Then we received word: the shooter was in custody; a single shooter confirmed. All students would evacuate to the middle school and meet their parents. But we still didn’t know for sure if our boys were safe, unharmed. So much time expired since our last correspondence. Soon after, our phones lit up. Both sent a text confirming their safety and promised to call when they arrived at the middle school.

For the first time, since 7:32 am, I exhaled. What little emotion I had left heaved out of me, and I crumbled onto solid ground, “Thank you, God, for protecting our boys.” Gratitude drained from every pore. My attention switched again to the other children, faculty members, and first responders. “Please, God, don’t let there be casualties.”

My husband retrieved our sons and walked them over to our car. I didn’t think any emotion could ever top the feeling of holding each of them as newborns. But at this moment, when our eyes met for the first time since hell broke loose, an unfamiliar ache swelled my heart.

An exhilarating heaviness pressed like gravity through time and space. The force propelled us together in a suffocating embrace. My babies were alive. God spared all three of their precious souls, our daughter safe miles away. Everything was okay for my family. But not okay for everyone else.

On that unimaginable day, three children lost their lives. Three families dismantled by the jaws of evil. A fourth child faces a lifetime of paralysis. Thousands of wounded people, young and old, fill our community. Many traumatized beyond repair as suffering marches on. The question of why such a tragedy struck still lingers—a silence more torturing for the parents who buried their kids than the rest of us will ever begin to understand. Free will can be a monster in the soul of a broken individual. The perpetrator in our loving community is living proof.

Countless parents tumbled down emotional cliffs on that bitter February morning in Chardon, Ohio. The free fall continues across our country. While the debate on why this happens and what solutions are right or wrong continues to rage like a machine, one thing transcends debate. An action that is available for every human being to take right now, this very moment: choose love. As a community in Chardon, we grasped onto love and rose above the vileness. One heartbeat became our mantra. Together we continue our ascent back to wholeness. Together we strive for the summit of peace—proving a continued faith in humanity cushions our falls. Such is the synergy of love.