Break Open In Case of A Mass Shooting

An Angerly Written Guide In The Aftermath of Gun Violence

Here’s what happens when you’re experiencing a mass shooting from afar—I share this because, at the rate we’re going, you’re probably going to be in one, or know someone who has. If you’re lucky like I am you’ll only be saddled with unyielding, life-long trauma doggedly thrumming at the base of your neck. If you’re unlucky like my cousin and her husband, you’ll be murdered.

First, you will get a pithy text or a notification on your phone; shots fired, gunman, shooter…something of the sort. I got the notification when I was on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Austria. I was sitting at a high-top table in Vienna when Sam’s phone lit up: “Shooting at Fourth of July Parade.” It says it’s in Highland Park, he told me.

I’m used to these types of Citizen notifications in our current neighborhood where gun violence is prevalent; a few months earlier Sam and I watched from the same app as a family cradled their dead 14-year-old son, shot in the chest at the park where we walk our dog. A few weeks ago, Sam stepped into the front yard to find an unspent bullet casing glinting on the sidewalk. I battled each experience with my thoughts, prayers, voting, and action.

Your life will immediately be split into before and after. You’ll long for the sweet, sweet moments of the before. In my before, Sam and I were enjoying our final night in Austria with our close friends. We spent the day wandering ancient Viennese streets, attempting to retrace the steps my family and I took 30 years earlier when immigrating from the Soviet Union to The Land of Opportunity.

When you do get that shattering text, it’s normal to not quite understand what you’re reading. I’d assumed it was all a miscommunication—someone mistaking fireworks for gunshots. Happens all the time in my neighborhood. But after a few minutes, the gears clicked into place and I figured it’d be good to send a text to my parents just to make sure it really was a misreport. The text back did not go in my favor.

My parents confirmed it was a mass shooting. My little brother wasn’t there. He texts the family chain to say he’s already getting information from friends who were there. A former coworker’s grandfather was murdered, he tells us.

That’s when your ears will probably begin to ring, at least mine did. The world around you will lose focus. You text everyone you know in the area, “WTF?! You safe?” collecting little moments of false relief with each response. Eventually, someone you know doesn’t respond.

In the hour or so after the shooting, you’ll be in this odd liminal period, an information vacuum. It’s before your neighborhood starts to trend, but after it’s changed forever. Soon it will be added to the bottom of a long list, bumping the last shooting into its new position of opening act. A name that was once so personal to your origin story will be uttered in somber tones by strangers across the country.

Before June, when venturing outside of Uvalde, its inhabitants had the privilege of laughing and telling people, “Oh it’s this tiny town you’ve probably never heard of.” Now, all these places, including my childhood home, have been violently stripped of their obscurity.

Before understanding the severity of the situation, you’ll want to post something to social media. You’ll feel like people need to know that you aren’t there, that your family is safe. Go ahead and post what you want, but be aware that it might turn out you’re wrong.

I posted from the bathroom, using a black background to convey the levity of what I was about to upload to dumb fucking Instagram stories. Not that it matters, but it was my second time doing so that week. How many more bathrooms will I have to stand in, choosing the perfect font to describe the end of one tragic existence and the beginning of another? Five? Eighteen? Infinity? For the gazillionth time, I considered deleting social media, as if that would keep the bad news from seeping through my phone.

Then, the articles will start to trickle out. Some have videos, I didn’t watch those and never will. All have chaotic snapshots; discarded shoes, dumped strollers, an empty street that still somehow looks like it’s in motion. These pictures will replace any memory you’ve ever created in that place. Bullet holes fill walls where you used to whisper the names of crushes into the ears of your best friends. I stopped looking at photos when I see a fountain I used to wade in as a middle schooler. Next to the fountain is the Dairy Queen where I used to lick my sticky fingers clean while searching for familiar faces in line. Now, it’s all just caution tape fluttering in the wind. A sash for the new Miss America: bullet-riddled Suburbia, U.S.A.

None of the early articles will have useful information or details…the story is still developing and it will continue to develop for the rest of your life—the picture never quite coming into focus.

You will find out about your loved ones before the rest of the world. Especially when the community is small and insular like immigrant Soviets in the Chicagoland area.

I found out at 5 a.m., the morning Sam and I were leaving Austria about 11 hours after the shooting. As I stirred awake, stretching through the peaceful moments before the reality of the previous day set in, I reached for my phone. Sam firmly placed his hand on my back, “I think someone you know died.” I clung onto the I think. I think is good because a thought is not a reality. Not yet.

I sat up and unlocked my phone, refreshing all the apps I use to communicate with my scattered family. The wifi where we were staying was spotty and my family thread remained unchanged. I snatched Sam’s phone out of his hands. He didn’t protest. WhatsApp was already open and the names were there: “Irina and her husband were killed.” A blunt text from my father, who wrote it on his way to Irina’s house to greet her mom, dad, and mother-in-law (who I’d later learn was shot in the head). The loopy handwriting Ira used to sign her paintings in art class flashes behind my eyelids before I slammed my face into the mattress, using the firm padding to muffle my sobs.

When my parents got to Irina’s house, 12 hours after the shooting, they sat at her kitchen table, mouths agape in horror. The journalists arrive before anyone else did, by the way. The gall. Irina’s mom tells my dad that I was lucky to be in Europe because with the time difference I got to live in a world where Irina was alive for a little bit longer than everyone else. Luck becomes a burden, forever pinned to your chest.  

If you’re far away from the shooting, you’ll try to disprove the information you received. I googled “highland park il victims” but it was the middle of the night in America and the articles wouldn’t be updated until I was in the air. I obsessively searched the internet until the fasten seat belt signs went on and we were asked to put our phones in airplane mode.

I enjoyed a private grief 38,000 feet in the sky while Irina and her husband’s name began trending below. The internet greedily lapped up the particularly cruel circumstances in which they were murdered; shot in cold blood by a sniper in front of their child. Irina and Kevin become the poster children for this massacre.  

Random memories sandwiched between violent imagery will start running through your head. Mine involved Irina teaching me to shave my legs, while our disapproving mothers smoked cigarettes in the backyard; Irina throwing her arms around her dad, who always looked like he just woke up from taking a nap under a tree; Irina lying in the street, her long, brown hair matted with blood.

Texts from friends who realize your connection to the tragedy will start coming in. Slowly at first, then at an unmanageable pace. Everyone will keep telling you they “don’t know what to say” as if there’s someone who does. A handful of people will send you “No words” texts. Until eventually, you’ll want to set your phone—the electronic trigger-bomb—on fire. Still in the air, I logged out of everything and passed my phone to Sam. Wanting to absorb information on my own terms.

The President will release a statement and for a moment you’ll wonder how he knows about your small neighborhood. Then you’ll remember. You will find comfort in the fact that, just like everyone else, his words also don’t have any meaning either. The abyss is too big to fill with words. Take comfort in the darkness. There’s no need for thoughts, prayers, voting, or action here. It’s too late, the monster is inside the house, outside the house, and on top of it.

I land at LAX 15 hours after the shooting and ask to see my phone. It’s confirmed. Irina and her husband were killed. I briefly look into flying straight to Chicago but decide to go home and shower first.

Vigils and guides and booths and dogs and priests and posters and hashtags and documents and food and books and GoFundMes will pop up. Journalists with gentle, rehearsed demeanors will descend into DMs and comments, encouraging you to reach out if you want to share. A resource sheet will go out with people to contact, but the only people you need to talk to aren’t available to take your call.

You’ll wonder if one of these things can answer your questions or ease your confusion. The answer doesn’t exist and never will.  

The GoFundMe campaigns are death by a thousand papercuts. Every time you see (and re-see) the photos of people you know, another part of you will die. Help with medical bills. Help with funeral costs. Help. Help. Help. The first one I saw was for a former camper, organized by another camper. Fifteen years have passed since I was a summer camp counselor in Highland Park but she looks just the same, her features more pronounced than when she was laying in the grass making lanyards with friends. In the GoFundMe photo, she smiles proudly into the camera with a newborn in her arms, her husband and toddler sitting on the bed next to her. She was shot in the leg. She’s one of the ones burdened with luck.

Next is navigating whether/how to do updates for those in your outer circles and where to post them. What’s too performative? Who has the license to take up space? Who gets to share a grief that’s so uniquely personal and national all at once? When is the right time?

Irina and I grew up together but grew apart in the way you sometimes do after college. We call each other cousins like most refugee-immigrants forced to find a new family in a foreign land…but we’re not blood relatives. Do I sneak in my hurt and anger onto the feeds? Do I put it on the grid where it will jut out amongst the curated work-related photos? Do I save that space for those closest to her? What happens when those closest to her do not speak English, are not writers, or on social media? What happens when the ones closest to her are in her bed right now wailing in pain? Do we keep it private? Grieve internally? Or do I use the algorithm to get her story out? Share words about Irina’s ease of laughter and absurd allergies in the same digital sandbox that’s radicalizing young broken men to terrorize a sleepy neighborhood’s 4th of July parade. What would she want? What do I need? The answer, of course, doesn’t exist and never will.

I don’t post. Not yet. Some people do; uploading their feelings between photos of cocktails and children. I can’t stand the thought of unexpectedly seeing the same wedding photo that’s trending on Twitter, used in the news reports, and the GoFundMe campaign so I delete all my social media apps from my phone.

After the confirmation of her death, I stop googling and reading the news stories because they don’t have the information I want them to have. The answer doesn’t exist and never will. I want journalists to tell everyone how Irina had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I want them to tell everyone how we used to sit in her backyard and smush blades of grass between our thumbs to try to make them whistle. I want them to share the story about how we first heard “Doin’ It” by L.L. Cool J at her house and Irina, two years older and a preteen sage, explained what doing it actually meant. I hope I never hear that song again.  

Life goes on after death and, criminally, so does death. In the same minute I receive confirmation of Irina’s murder, I also get a text from my half-sister: her mom died after a month-long battle with an aggressively rare form of brain cancer. Sam starts looking at flights while I stare at our blank TV.

I take two showers, sleep for 7 hours (and not 72 like I was planning), eat two hard-boiled eggs, kiss my dog between the eyes, apply for a job, and go back to the airport. By next Wednesday, I will have made nine trips to the airport. I wonder if that’s a record.

Making decisions becomes impossible. What do you pack for a trip you don’t want to take? There’s not enough black clothing in my closet for back-to-back funerals. There’s not enough black clothing in the world to watch multiple bodies go into the earth.

Get ready for invasive thoughts at all hours of the day. Every time I close my eyes, I imagine skulls being blown open by military-grade rifles. I keep them open instead; staring at walls, a glass of water, the wrinkles deepening in my father’s forehead as he cries. He shared a park bench with Irina last week, while her baby played with my parents’ dog. They made each other laugh and then parted ways for good.

Your brain stops working in the aftermath of murder. Grief corrodes your synapses. So when you go through your own mass shooting, I recommend not operating vehicles for a while. No complicated tasks—although unavoidable when you must fly to the scene of the crime. My flight numbers have jumbled into a string of code, I keep flashing them at faces behind desks. Floating arms wave me through to other rooms and metal boxes.

You should make lists. I’ve found them to be helpful. My last list, written while standing at the kitchen counter, hair sopping wet from a shower, started with “dry off.”

Dates, times, and days all lose meaning. Is tomorrow the day after or yesterday today? It doesn’t matter unless you have a flight to catch. You have to catch your flight so you can be with your family.

In 2016, when a gunman entered UCLA’s campus, Sam was in his office in the Public Health building working on his dissertation. I got the text “gunman on campus” and stepped into that odd liminal period where I knew tragedy was hard at work before the rest of the world. But it was only a murder-suicide. Only. A traceable line from beginning to end, which didn’t intersect with anything else. That night, cradling Sam to my chest, I shuddered to think about how close UCLA got to becoming a statistic, a name on the growing list of school shootings. It missed us…this time, I thought. We are lucky.

It’s been about 36 hours since the massacre and the waterboard of horrors has slowed to a drip. I don’t know what’s waiting on the other side of day three, so I’ll have to leave you here. I’m gonna go explore how much deeper and darker this grief will go. At the end of this message, I’ll delete my apps, silence my notifications, shut off my phone, and disappear into my family for the foreseeable future.

Before I disappear, though, I want to share a prediction: I believe that as the beast grows stronger and the circle of destruction gets wider, there will be fewer and fewer lucky ones. Enough is not, apparently, enough. There will be more. There will be another. The list on Wikipedia will grow longer, with bullets adding bullet points. Our community of broken hearts will grow bigger, swallowed up by unrelenting trauma, until we’re a mass of zombies, shuffling through the streets experiencing everything and feeling nothing.

Don’t worry, though, when your time comes, my family and I will be here to welcome you into the abyss.