Shared grief: the Amish and the parents of Newtown

The horrific story of the Amish shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006 was on my mind this week.  The people of Nickel Mines understand, perhaps better than anyone, what the families are facing in Newtown.  I remembered that the Amish responded to their grief with astonishing grace and mercy—reaching out to forgive what would seem, to many, unforgivable:

The tragic schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in Southern Lancaster County stunned the world. What was even more surprising was the Amish response of forgiveness in the face of this unprecedented slaughter of the innocent of the innocent. By the end of that awful day in October 2006, five young girls were dead and five others were fighting for their lives in emergency rooms. How would we have responded if these had been our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, or our granddaughters?

The Amish response of forgiveness shocked the world and quickly became the story that eclipsed the story of violence. Within a week of the shooting some 2,400 media stories around the world focused on the courage to forgive in the wake of the horror….

…One of the most striking expressions of forgiveness occurred at [the shooter] Charles Roberts’s burial on the Saturday after the shooting. Roberts was buried in the Georgetown cemetery, about a mile from the school, beside his firstborn daughter whose premature death nine years earlier he blamed on God and gave as the reason for his murderous acts. Over half of the people in attendance were Amish. They spontaneously decided to attend. Some had just buried their own daughters the day before. After the burial they hugged the widow and the parents of Charles Roberts. It was a remarkable act of grace. The funeral director supervising the burial said, “I realized that I was witnessing a miracle!” The Amish families bestowed other gracious acts of kindness on the family of Charles Roberts. Some sent meals and flowers to his widow. At Christmastime children from a nearby Amish school went to the Roberts home to sing carols.

Now, with their own experiences still fresh in their memory—and the ache in the hearts still raw— the Amish are quietly trying to help the suffering families of Newtown:

As they have following other notorious shootings across the country, the Nickel Mines families are thinking of reaching out to the parents affected by the latest tragedy.

Some are planning to write letters to the Connecticut parents.

A Honey Brook man, Jerry Feister, who owns a farming business, has invited the Nickel Mines families to write the letters, and volunteered to pick them up and deliver them to Connecticut by Christmas Eve.

Some of the families say they plan to write. But they are at a loss about what to say.

One father said he sat down Monday morning to begin a letter but couldn’t get past the first line.

“The grieving process is very personal. Right now, they’re in shock, so what can I write?” he said.

Human touch, and a shared grief, would communicate better.

“I know we’d cry a while,” said one mother, saying what she would do if she met the Connecticut families. “But I don’t know what we’d say. It’s not the time to say a lot of words. But we certainly can feel for them.”

A father recounted the outpouring of support from friends and sympathetic strangers during the days after the Nickel Mines shootings.

One encounter stuck with him. It was when a man, with tears in his eyes, came up to him, shook his head, and said, “I just don’t know what to say.”

That, the father said, “felt as good as anything.”

He added that would be his outreach to Connecticut parents.

“I’m thinking, for them, a handshake or a hand on their shoulders would do more good,” he said.

The Amish parents all said it was their faith, and God’s help, that got them through the dark days following Nickel Mines. They hope the Connecticut parents have a faith to lean on as well.

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