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An Open Letter to Families Who Lost Loved Ones in the D.C. Navy Yard Mass Shooting

09/19/2013 11:03 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013
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Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker, the daughter of James "Vinny" LaGuardia, who was killed in a mass shooting in Pennsylvania on August 5, 2013, wrote this letter on Monday, September 16, 2013.

Dear Brokenhearted,

I am so very sorry for your loss. I know your pain all too well. Six weeks ago tonight, my father was killed in a mass shooting in Pennsylvania. He was merely attending a township meeting with his neighbors. Little did I know that a phone conversation I had with him only two hours earlier -- he had called to wish my oldest daughter a happy 10th birthday -- would be our last.

My father, someone who was always the life of the party and the light of our lives, had his light extinguished in a senseless act of violence in Ross Township on Monday, August 5th. It is still difficult for me to type those words, let alone say them out loud, but alas, this is our new reality.

Unfortunately, this too is your new reality. Even more frightening is that news of gun violence shattering innocent lives has, sadly, made weekly, if not daily, headlines. It's overwhelming to reconcile the fact that there are individuals who feel justified to carry out their grievances and anger via bloodshed. Or that they are so severely disturbed, suffering alone or without adequate mental assistance, that they experience the type of break in reality that has left so many others' irreversibly ravaged.

"Overwhelmed" is going to be one of the few words that will almost suffice to describe your many feelings over the next few days, weeks, and months. More likely than not, you are experiencing shock right now, interspersed with moments of panic and sheer despair. You may sit idly for hours, staring at a wall, unable to get your mind to process anything. Every phone in your house will ring and beep incessantly, with family and friends calling, texting, Facebooking, or tweeting, to see what exactly has happened. They, too, will be incapable of wrapping their heart around the fact that your loved one, someone so important and influential as a father, husband, uncle, brother, nephew, cousin, sister, mother, daughter, wife, grandparent, aunt, niece, friend, coworker, colleague, or customer, is simply no longer with us.

Your heart will ache with the realization that though our God may have deemed it time for your loved one to come home, you were not at all prepared to have that action carried out by an act so violent. That someone with a grievance and/or a mental illness picked up a gun and pointed it at innocent people, and that they did so with no respect for humanity, love, family, laughter, or lifetimes of memories that will forevermore be just that -- memories.

Once your loved one's name is released to the media, a new heartache will begin. Reporters will arrive at your doorstep with notebooks in hand. They will slip their business cards under your front door and leave voicemails that will sound surreal to you upon playback. You will hear mispronunciations of your loved one's name on TV and be heartbroken again and again as you listen to 45-second sound byte summaries of his or her life set to the rhythm of a broadcaster's cadence.

Then you may also become inundated with the "Why's?" Why did the gunman do what he did? Why was your loved one in harm's way? Why did he or she, like my father, choose the "wrong" door? You will be sickeningly enthralled by news reports, will scour through online search results about the event only to be dismayed by reader comments, infuriated by ignorant and intelligent individuals alike who choose to use your family's tragedy to set an agenda or justify criminal behavior.

You will vow to never again read reports of what happened, and promise to no longer partake in reviewing play-by-play accounts from witnesses that lead you to dream of scenarios in which things turned out differently. You will wish with all you have -- all that you are -- that your loved one came home that Monday night, not that you are left with a piece of your heart now missing, splintered with shards of sadness.

And then your intellect and spirit will wane like a willow tree in the wind, shifting between sessions of practicality and emotion-driven action about which you're unsure. You will begin doubting everything you're feeling and how you react to things; even something as simple as writing a note like this will keep you up for hours because you're uncertain if this is "how you're supposed to handle things" or if you should just be still.

Yet through all of the madness, grief, and inconsolable moments, there will be glimpses of hope. You will see, feel, and experience compassion from hundreds upon hundreds of people. You will still be overwhelmed, but this time it will be from all the love, prayers, and concern showered upon you by those who care for you. And you will be enveloped not only by family and close friends, but also by co-workers and clients -- ones you haven't worked with in years or decades; people you attended grammar school with; yet others who deliver your mail, newspaper, and packages; those who walk your dog, clean your office suite, use the heavy bag across the room at kickboxing class, or sit in the pew behind you at church. Even still, thanks to social media, you'll hear from strangers moved by news accounts whose empathy is impassioned, and those you may know only through apps on your phone, in a sense -- Twitter followers who send flowers and care packages; Facebook friends who add encouraging comments on those posts you make at 3 a.m. on the third consecutive sleep-elusive night. People you've merely traded Instagram "likes" with in the past will now post messages of restoration that have the potential to uplift you in ways you'd never imagined.

And in those times when you can cry no longer, you will have moments of clarity. You will feel that in the end, love -- not evil, this evil that our loved ones saw right before their eyes -- will triumph. If you allow yourself to lean in to God's embrace, you will feel that grace everyone always talks about, and you will be reinvigorated by your faith that you will see your loved one again someday.

Of course, you will also return to periods of confusion and sadness; for me, today is one of those days. But you will figure out a way as each day passes to manage it how your loved one would want you to. My father always took pride in my ability to make a living by writing ("PD," he called it -- his acronym for "pay day"). So it is that I felt compelled to pen this letter.

Although I am far from "healed," I do find myself gaining more and more strength and feel God's grace increasing in abundance as each new day begins. So that is what I leave with you at this moment -- strength that will overtake your despair, and grace that will sustain you through your darkest hour.

Blessings and peace,

Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker

2 Corinthians 12:9-10: But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.