On my first day back to high school after my dad, a beloved history teacher, was shot and killed outside the school where he taught in New Jersey, I wanted to disappear into the walls. At my locker, I used drained reserves of strength to force a fake smile. Friends walked towards me, braced for my inevitable meltdown, but I said hello as if nothing had happened. They appeared appropriately baffled. Ignoring their confusion, I asked about their weekends, determined to act like it was any other Monday.
My shaky façade crumbled as the day progressed. Every teacher kindly but frustratingly pulled me out of class to give me a pep talk. After nine periods and nine sweet but crushing chats, I was broken and just wanted to crawl under my bed and stay there. The talks were well-intentioned, but they confirmed what I didn’t want to admit: that my dad was really gone and I had to deal with it.
Years passed. That closeting of feelings was a problem every time I became close to a new friend. Should I tell them? Sometimes not telling them felt like I was weirdly lying about a big, weighty piece of history that I carried around every day. It was especially awkward when gun violence would frequently appear in the news and then in our casual conversations. The times that I did manage to share the story often ended with me consoling them instead of the other way around.
The 20th anniversary of my dad’s death was February 12, 2018, and I felt it looming in the months prior. As it approached, I didn’t want it to go unmarked, but I also didn’t know what would be deemed an appropriate recognition. Was there some kind of Gun Violence Grief Guidebook that I could consult? Unfortunately there wasn’t, so I solicited friends and family for memories and stories to celebrate him in an artistic, commemorative book. Not wanting to bum people (or myself) out, I made it as bright and cute as possible.
The project offered closure that was quickly yanked away two days later, when Parkland happened. I watched Emma González call for change on the news, simultaneously broken for her and feeling a little bit of myself in her. We had both closely experienced gun violence around the same confusing, angst-filled age and I silently praised her strength.
I’d only spoken about my pain quietly, so I admired how Emma and her fellow classmates quickly turned that overwhelming fear and anger into March for Our Lives. I channeled the broken inspiration they gave me into a shirt design to help raise funds for Everytown, an organization that counters the gun lobby. I only set out to make a shirt, but it turned out that trying to make the world a better place was actually kind of nice. The harder I worked on my activism efforts, the more encouragement I received, conversations and ideas I’d have, and answers I’d find. I attended marches, spoke with politicians and other survivors at a rally. Unexpectedly, I felt the heavy weight of 20-year-old grief lifting a little bit.
Chasing that feeling, I came up with more projects that helped raise awareness about gun reform. For Black Friday, I created a “Gunsense Holiday Gift Guide” to help other concerned people shop brands that support common-sense gun laws and avoid brands that support the NRA. What started out as holiday gift-purchasing stress turned into something productive. That same week, I co-hosted an activist event with a friend where we shared self-care tips on how to be politically mindful and involved while keeping calm.
Recently, the shirt I designed officially raised $10,000 for gun safety. My mom said that she was proud and that my dad would be proud. She sweetly likened it to when my dad exclaimed, “Holy shit” after seeing an impressive drawing of Garfield that I did as a kid.
I’ll always miss him, but my grief hangover has diminished. I no longer shake when I tell someone about what happened to him. I'm no longer afraid to weigh in on gun violence — even in the presence of opposition. I no longer feel isolated as I'm now part of communities of survivors who comfort each other. Most surprisingly, I've enjoyed a near-endless stream of inspiration that has come with being around the hardworking people who make up the activist community.
I don’t fully know what I’m doing, but I’ve learned that doing something is better than doing nothing (even if you get a little side-eye from an uncle once in a while). I’ve also learned that there are a lot of people who don’t embrace activism because they don’t know how or don’t understand the benefits. Just as there’s no black-and-white rulebook on murder-specific grief, there’s not one on activism (though Google helps a lot). If you are waiting for one, I encourage you not to because it might surprise you how beneficial the exploration can be. Use activism as a productive channel for your pain or frustrations. Whether it’s personal or political, it can result in a freeing feeling that will have you much more ready for a new day.
Holy shit indeed, dad.