"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 6, 2012
Find Peace Amidst Tragedy
by Melissa Howell

Like most of the nation, I awakened on July 20 to news of yet another horrific mass shooting, this one at a movie theater.

I quickly realized it was the theater my husband, children and I lived just minutes from a few years ago in Aurora, Colorado, a theater we had frequented on a number of occasions. Subsequently, a number of questions came quickly to my mind. Chief among them was, “I wonder if we know anyone who was there?”

That answer came quickly, thanks to the efficiency of social networking: Three boys who had been in my Primary when I served as Primary president, and a girl I had taught when I was a Mia Maid adviser. All were tremendously shaken, but all were physically unharmed.

Of course, my heart filled over with compassion and concern for what these young people had witnessed, events that likely will haunt their memories for years to come. And I thought of their parents.

Some of the images that strike the deepest and most vulnerable emotions within the depths of my being are of the parents: some stricken with such extreme grief at learning their children had been the unfortunate ones, the ones who took a bullet or several bullets, others with such immense gratitude and relief in learning that their children were physically untouched, those whom the bullets may have grazed by or didn’t touch altogether.

Either way, I can’t imagine what they might have gone through in wondering and learning of their children’s fates, although I once had a small taste of the fear.

It was a beautiful, unusually warm February day. I ventured out on an afternoon walk with my three young children at the time, who were four, two, and eight months. As we approached the neighborhood park, just a block or two from our house, I saw a large group of kids. I didn’t think much of it at first – students from a nearby middle school often cross through the park after school – but something told me to stay away from them. The negative energy the group was emitting then erupted into a fistfight. As my heart raced and I turned to exit the park, chaos suddenly erupted.

The group scattered and started heading right toward me and my children. A teenage boy ran at me, urgently saying, “Ma'am, you've got to get your kids out of here! They're going to start shooting!"

Before I even had time to react, this young man scooped up my four-year-old and grabbed the front of my double stroller, which contained my toddler and infant. Instantly handing over my trust to him, without consciously deciding to do so, I grabbed the back half of the stroller and ran with him through a small swamp and up to a street. While we were running, multiple shots pierced the air.

As I was running for my life and my children’s lives and heard the shots, my first thought immediately went to my children: “Did a shot hit one of them?” “Are they OK?” People say you can taste extreme fear, and that it’s palpable. From this experience, I would concur that both descriptions are accurate. I would be perfectly content if I never experience such a level of fear again.

My angel – whom I learned was named Kevin – and I crossed the street with my children into a neighborhood until we felt it was safe to stop. We turned around to find the group had completely disappeared, except for two kids who had been shot. They were lying silently in the grass. We were all crying.

Within a minute or two police swarmed the area. I thanked Kevin time and again for helping us, and he explained he heard rumors of a fight, but didn’t know it would involve guns. He asked the age of my oldest child, and I told him he was four.

“I have a brother that age, and I saw you there and had to help you,” he replied.

We shakingly parted ways, and I walked home with my children. In the ensuing minutes, hours and days, I would ponder on the what-ifs. What if Kevin hadn’t come to warn me? What if there had been no one to help me carry the children when we were running from real danger? What if the bullets had come in our direction? What if, what if, what if…?

I would also deal with a lot of questions from my four-year-old: “Why were we so scared?” “What were those loud bang noises?” “Why were there so many helicopters flying around?” “Who was the boy that carried me?”

My answers then to a four-year-old were different than they are now, as this same child, now nine years old, asked many questions when hearing of the recent theater shooting. But the concept is the same now as I told him then: some people were being mean and making bad choices, and it made me sad.

Helping children cope with and/or talking to kids about tragedy can be a challenging situation. In the case of a tragic experience, experts give such valuable advice as this:

  • keep kids’ media exposure to a minimum;
  • be available and prepared to answer children’s questions honestly, but simply;
  • consider spending some extra time with your children if they are having a difficult time;
  • make an effort to create a calm and stable environment for them.
  • All of this is solid advice.

Additionally, President Monson offers some beautiful counsel. In the August 2008 Ensign, in an article titled, “May We So Live,” President Monson wrote about the September 11 events that had happened almost seven years prior to that time, and suggested some ideas for helping family members to live a full and happy life, never knowing when mortality will end for each of us. He gives insightful and comforting reminders to ponder and discuss with our families, including:

1. The darkness of death can ever be dispelled by the light of revealed truth, and these truths can bring peace and comfort to those who mourn. “This reassurance — yes, even holy confirmation — of life beyond the grave could well provide the peace promised by the Savior when He assured His disciples: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’”

2. Be aware of what we are doing with today. Teach children to make the most of today and not procrastinate what can be done immediately. Take advantage of and teach children to search daily for opportunities to serve others and do good works around us. “Our opportunities to give of ourselves are indeed limitless, but they are also perishable. There are hearts to gladden. There are kind words to say. There are gifts to be given. There are deeds to be done. There are souls to be saved.”

3. Fill others’ hearts. Discuss with family members some fond memories that a person could have at the end of his or her life. Talk with younger children about the things that matter most to them now. Encourage family members to live a good and joyful life, without regrets. “May we resolve from this day forward to fill our hearts with love. May we go the extra mile to include in our lives any who are lonely or downhearted or who are suffering in any way. May we ‘[cheer] up the sad and [make] someone feel glad.’ May we live so that when that final summons is heard, we may have no serious regrets, no unfinished business, but will be able to say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’”

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About Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell was born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

As a single 20-something, she moved to Colorado seeking an adventure. She found one, first in landing her dream job and then in landing her dream husband; four children followed.

Upon becoming a mother, she left her career in healthcare communications to be a stay-at-home mom, and now every day is an adventure with her husband Brian and children Connor (9), Isabel (6), Lucas (5) and Mason (2).

In addition, she is a freelance writer and communications consultant for a variety of organizations.

Melissa serves as Assistant director of media relations for stake public affairs and Webelos den leader

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