12/16/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2013

Sorrow and Sandy Hook School

Twenty children dead.

Shot to death, many of them kindergartners.

Pause for a moment and think what that means.

I know all too well: my sister Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband Richard and their unborn baby were shot and killed by an intruder in their home in 1990. My family members were, like the children of Sandy Hook School, innocent victims of a senseless shooting.

It means absorbing the surreal news that your loved one--the one whose warm body you just hugged not too long ago, whose bright eyes you looked into--is no more. Never to hear their voice again, to feel those arms around your neck.

For me, it meant going to the morgue to identify the bodies of ones I adored, motionless, zipped inside body bags.

It meant the heartbreak of packing up baby bottles Nancy had bought, in her excitement to be a mother.

For the parents of the dead of Sandy Hook School, it means an empty bed tonight in a child's room, a barren pillow. A toothbrush dry in its holder; pajamas folded in a drawer, unworn. Instead of laughter, the quiet of a tomb.

It means a family pet circling that bed, looking up anxiously, as if asking, "Where is she?"

It means putting away clothes that still bear the scent, irreplaceable, of a beloved: a boy's favorite t-shirt, a girl's sparkly sweater, little bathrobes.

For the sisters and brothers of those children, it means gaping silence where there used to be giggles and late-night talks, a vacant chair at the dinner table, unimaginable.

For neighbors, it means the child who played with yours in Summer, running through sprinklers in the back yard, suddenly has been erased from this world. Gone.

For the surviving children of Sandy Hook School, it means an empty desk where a living, breathing classmate used to sit, a locker with his name on it, unopened.

The ripples of grief go outward: the grandparents, the Sunday School class, the Brownie troop, the soccer team.

My friend Bob Williamson knows that grief. In 1988, in quiet, affluent Winnetka, Illinois, a mentally ill woman stormed into his daughters' elementary school and shot six children. Five miraculously survived. Eight-year-old Nicky Corwin perished.

Bob was taking the train from downtown, listening to the radio on his Walkman, when he heard breaking news: gunshots at his children's school. "That was the worst 45 minutes of my life, waiting to get off the train," Bob told me.

When he finally did, even though it was a warm May day, it "felt as cold as January to me." On the way to the school, Bob learned his children were safe. His five-year-old daughter Kate told him about a boy who had been shot, who stumbled into her classroom. While paramedics were working on him, she overheard the little boy say, "I hope I don't die."

On the day when the lives of twenty precious children were cut short by bullets, a friend sent me prayers from the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. One of them read:

"O merciful Father...Look with pity upon the sorrows of thy servant...."

This detail haunts me: when the surviving children of Sandy Hook School were led out to safety, they were told to close their eyes. That was the right thing to do, to shield them from the carnage.

But we cannot shut our eyes. We need to look, with pity, and with purpose. We cannot let this happen again, ever.