What dying children can teach America about responding to shootings

People comfort each other as they stand near the shooting scene in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018. A gunman opened fire inside a country dance bar crowded with hundreds of people on “college night.” (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(RNS) — After a steady drumbeat of bomb threats, the horrific attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue and now, in California, yet another shooting seemingly targeting young people, Americans may be starting to feel as if our country is drowning in grief and collectively can’t come up for air.

The pain we see in Pittsburgh and Thousand Oaks impacts all of us in the towns in between. It leaves us asking in despair: “What can we do?”

As a pediatric oncologist and hospice and palliative care doctor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, I have the honor of working closely with children suffering from the worst diseases imaginable. Walking this journey with a child with cancer and his or her family has taught me that even in the face of pain, we must be willing to be vulnerable precisely when our fear tells us to run away.

Most of us have an idea of what compassion means; for me the true meaning of compassion lies in its Latin roots, “to suffer with.” I suffer with my patients and their parents during their time of greatest need. I walk with them from devastating diagnosis through many crises and on to wellness, or to death.

My team and I join our patients and their families on a very personal, exquisitely painful journey. Along the way, these remarkable people have taught us how to “suffer with” people, how to show compassion, and how we can show up.

Kevin and Christine O’Brien, two bereaved parents from St. Jude, had a daughter who was diagnosed with a brain tumor about 10 years ago. Catie was a remarkable young lady with a huge heart and a smile that lit up a room. As Catie was dying, she gave her family an edict: “I don’t want other children to have to suffer from this. I want to make sure that this does not happen to other kids. So, Mom and Dad, do everything you can possibly do to help them and their families.”

I was able to help the O’Briens and other amazing bereaved parents to create a steering council of bereaved parents who help train St. Jude’s clinical staff to deliver difficult news and better support patients and families. Additionally, these bereaved parents choose to address their grief head-on by working with other parents who are newly bereaved.

Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh pay their respects as the funeral procession for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz passes their school en route to Homewood Cemetery after a funeral service at the Jewish Community Center on Oct. 30, 2018. Rabinowitz was one of 11 people killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

You may think a parent whose child has died wouldn’t want to relive that tragedy. But many of our parents find that sharing the lessons of their own experiences offers an opportunity to carry on their child’s legacy. Grieving parents say that friends, family and neighbors often pull away after a tragedy, wrongly assuming that those who have a lost a child don’t want to talk about their pain.

To the contrary, these parents show us how to lean into the grief. They ask us to open our hearts to do our very best to carry some of that person’s suffering with us. It truly is as simple as that. And as you can imagine, it’s as hard as it sounds.

As a society, we have become avoiders of moments of pain. I believe we need to become embracers instead. What grieving people desperately want and need is for someone to really listen.

I encourage people not to avoid grieving friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Don’t make excuses like, “I don’t want to make things worse” or “I don’t want to bring up a painful subject.” Instead, share the burden with them and give the gift of your time and heart.

You may not deal with grieving parents every day like I do, but we all encounter people who are grieving. The next time you see someone hurting, be fully present and be willing to be vulnerable. Practice compassion by trying to take some of that person’s suffering on yourself.

Know that, in doing this, you’re living for others and giving that person, and yourself, one of life’s greatest gifts.

We are the ones grieving people all around us are counting on. It’s you. It’s me. It’s up to us.

(Justin Baker is a pediatric oncologist and palliative care specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Justin Baker


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  • One woman commented on the news that she was tired of people sending her prayers, she didn’t want their prayers, she wanted gun control.

    Our society is great on symbolic gestures, it is a way of feeling that you are doing something when you are actually doing nothing. People like this mother don’t need symbolic gestures they need action.

  • But then you have a genuine question:
    Exactly *what* action?

    Exactly what gun control law stops all these determined, careful, homework-doing shooters, from obtaining at least some sort of firearm (or two), and killing/wounding 10 or more people, even if they lose their own lives?

  • 1. National level gun ownership data collection comes to mind
    2. Mandatory liability insurance on firearms
    (both are extremely useful in curbing the interstate illegal firearms trade and “red flag” gun hoarding)
    3. National level waiting periods and background checks

    Any or all of which are more useful than your avoidance.

  • What action might that be?

    California has the harshest gun laws in the USA, and we saw how that worked out.

  • And your Democratic elected officials — they are insisting on these 3 specific laws when Congress is in session? Or are they, umm, a bit silent about these 3 proposals?

    (I have a couple other items here, but I want to begin this way.)

  • 1) what exactly would this do? The government already knows who LEGALLY owns a gun. It is reported via the States during the gun background check. To that point, the government now has a list of what doors to begin knocking on to collect the guns. Do we want that? No way.
    2) insurance for what? To pay the victims families? Sure; nice thought, but not a deterrent to anyone that wants to cause harm. Im sure all of the gang bangers and interstate gun runners with their illegal Glocks will be the first to call their Gieco agent. Get serious.
    3) waiting periods? Already exists. No effect.

    The fact of the matter is that evil exists in this world. That is THE issue. No amount of laws or rules will change that. Take the guns away, and they’ll use a knife. Take the knife away, they’ll use a car. Take the car away, they’ll use their bare hands.
    This guy was broken by war; but maybe he was just a bad person who hated his life and wanted to impose harm on others for no real reason – just because he wanted to; just like the shithead kid down the street that drowns kittens for fun.
    THAT is what needs to be addressed. Why did this guy feel the need to wipe out innocents? Because he was evil.
    Those of you who are secular will say we need to address mental health issues. Those of us of faith will say that this guy lacked God and thus had no hope. Maybe it is a bit of both.

  • 1) Create the paper trails which frustrate inter state gun smuggling and create law enforcement red flags to gun hoarders. The government does not do this. They are prevented from doing this by the Gun Lobby’s political muscle. Your FAKE fears of gun confiscation pale to the REAL problem of illegal guns flooding the streets. You apparently think paranoid fantasies are more important than addressing a real problem with a huge body count.

    2) liability insurance. Just like the NRA wants. It creates a financial incentive towards gun safety rather than ban or requirements. A market based incrntivr, capitalism. Plus it provides #1 without government agencies collecting data. Insurers share data with each other to order prevent fraud and require 4th Amendment protocols to share with law enforcement. Even better try have an incentive to protect ownership rights. This is removing your fake fear of confiscation.

    BTW the gang bangers have a tougher time getting their guns if their straw buyers have to buy insurance for each gun they get in “Red states”.

    3) not nationally.

    Your objects are based in ignorance, canned bull crap and the asinine idea that if it doesn’t solve every problem it is somehow useless. Even measures which drastically reduce gun violence HD better then the status quo of making excuses and doing nothing. Half measures ate better than zero measures at all.

  • Actually #2 comes from responsible gun owners. The NRA sells that type of insurance. I know of no official who proposes it nationally.

    You asked for suggestions.

  • 1) The guns being used in events like these are most often legally purchased either by the shooter or from the family member of a shooter. I am not sure how interstate gun running means anything here.
    2) responsible NRA members will buy insurance; just like responsible people buy car insurance. Do irresponsible people have car insurance? No. Do unstable people that want to harm people have any care in the world? No. Hot tip for you regarding insurance. The only people that buy insurance are those who are responsible and have something to lose. These shooters have nothing to lose.
    3) stupid comment for a weak argument. If your so concerned about waiting periods, how about we implement them for those wanting an abortion?

    And with all that, you fail to address the real cause – BAD people. Of course, this doesn’t fit your narrative of additional, useless regulation. Every step you mention would not prevent what occurred; but it would inconvenience those that already follow the law.

  • 1)Guns used in street violence are invariably purchased by straw buyers. Hoarding is a typical red flag activity of mass murderers. There is more than one issue of gun violence. We can address one or two of them. Ignoring it won’t help anyone. Why focus only on mass murderers when street gun violence kills more and more often.

    2) you are making a ridiculous argument here. Insurance creates paper trails of ownership without government efforts. A way to slow down or kill straw buying epidemic. Gun owners as a group are not responsible people in aggregate. The perils created by them are too high and expensive to trust their judgment alone. The public needs to be protected from their negligence. Plus it aids in theft recovery for them. Insurance also creates incentives towards responsible behavior. Car insurance has made resale of stolen vehicles more difficult. It makes buying cars for committing crimes more difficult.

    3) weak arguments are excuses for inaction when bodies are piling up on a regular basis.

    You are full of weak excuses and show no concern for the lives of people. Just like your stance on abortion. 🙂

  • Yes, I certainly did. Nobody seems to have answered what I specifically asked. All three of your proposals have one guaranteed thing in common: They’re aimed at the people who already obey the laws. But they can’t touch the ones who don’t.

    Any shooter who has decided, for any reason, that multiple Murder One life sentences (or a judicial death penalty, or simply a policeman’s well-aimed fatal bullet following a 911 call) no longer matters anymore, will simply decide that YOUR 3 specific laws won’t stop him either.

    Chicago. Las Vegas. Orlando. The latest shooting in Thousand-Oaks, followed the election of Gun-Control governor Gavin Newsom just this week. The shooter simply didn’t care what laws were on the books, or will soon be on the books, or what penalties they carried.

    (optional extended post)

    Now, having said that, let’s just look at your three gun-control laws there. You’ve posted them before. For a change of pace, let’s surf the Net and see what comes up.

    On your first item, there’s something out there called “the Haynes decision.” In plain English it means, “If mandatory gun registration can’t be used to punish ex-felons in possession of a firearm, what purpose does such a law serve? If mandatory gun registration can only be used to punish people that can legally possess a gun, why bother?” — (blogger/author Clayton Cramer.)

    On your second item, the NRA has publicly opposed Washington DC’s mandatory gun liability insurance law:

    1. It is an affront to law-abiding gun owners–you are not required to carry insurance to exercise any other constitutional right.
    2. It is economically discriminatory–insurance is expensive and such a mandate could make firearm ownership even more unattainable for average law-abiding D.C. residents who have an inherent right to self-defense regardless of income.
    3. No insurance company will write a policy to cover the intentional or criminal misuse of a firearm. Since the insurance policy B20-170 seeks to mandate does not exist, this could lead to an all-out gun ban in the District of Columbia.

    And on your third item, apparently those waiting periods (Brady Bill) do NOT actually reduce the homicides. (Obviously not in Chi-Town, 24/7.) And again, the mass shooters don’t even care about waiting. The rich, smart, white Las Vegas businessman had all the patience in Hades. Quietly set up all his chess pieces, one fatal piece at a time.

  • “Interstate gun running” is one of your correspondent’s mantras to put a fig leaf over the complete failure of harsh gun control laws in places like Chicago and California.

    And of course your correspondent is fixated on avoiding the notion that there is such a thing as BAD people, preferring the “root causes” approach that underlies all the expensive social fixes that do not work.

  • Your argument is flawed. Basically you are saying because something isn’t perfect we should do nothing.

  • ” They’re aimed at the people who already obey the laws. But they can’t touch the ones who don’t.”

    Absolutely false in every respect. You are giving me a canned pat response and not bothering to read or understand closely. Conservatives generally make the least rational arguments against sane regulation of the ownership of DEADLY WEAPONS.

    Thanks to the lack of national gun ownership data collection, we have a vigorous trade of firearms flooding cities from seemingly lawful purchases. Illegal gun sellers don’t smuggle weapons into the country, they buy them at gun stores like everyone else. Purchases which looked legal on paper and passed through the weak regulations, but in totality were not.

    Two of my suggestions would drastically curtail this trade by creating the paper trails which a gun smuggler tries to avoid. It would also curb one of the key signs of a budding mass murderer (or terrorist), gun hoarding.

    Plus nothing I have stated comes even close to harming ownership interests. If we regulated guns to even somewhat of the same level as automobiles or explosives, thousands of lives could be saved and at no point would 2nd Amendment rights be remotely curtailed.

    Your suggestion, nada. Worthless.

    The rest of your post was hysterics for its own sake, evincing the ignorance and tacit avoidance of an adult discussion on the subject.

  • No, you are simply being asked for specifics. You said, “People like this mothers don’t need symbolic gestures, they need action.”

    So please tell us exactly what “action” you have in mind, and also say exactly how it will stop the next shootings in California and Chicago.

    By the way, the NEXT deadly mass shooter is almost ready for his stage debut, so please offer those specifics sooner instead of later. Thanks!

  • You’re seeking to sell this stuff, but there’s gotta be a reason why the Democrats haven’t bought it.

  • Soooooo…,,,
    About the paper trail and this insurance thingy idea of yours….
    What happens when you arrest these straw buyers….
    Do you put them in prison?
    Or, as was the case last week; there should be less people in prison?

  • Are they harmless drug possession offenders I was talking abouback then t? No.

    I am talking to a mor0n.

    You are really grasping at straws to come up with contrarian arguments against sensible gun control laws. It’s silly.

  • I am not seeking to sell the stuff personally. The idea has been floated on both sides of the aisle.

    But Republicans are too beholden to the NRAs more ridiculous sections to consider any sane discussion here.

  • Already gave Spuddie specific rebuttals on each of his three specifics: One main rebuttal that crashes into all of them (and I wasn’t the only poster to bring up the issue), followed by three Google-Surfing rebuttals tailored to each item. Naturally I don’t expect Spuddie to agree (and he’s totally NOT going to rationally eliminate any of them, so I’m content to just leave the exchange where it is.)

    And I continue to note the amazing lack of interest among Congressional Democrats regarding Spuddie’s arguments. Very odd Radio Silence from liberals throughout the Mid-Terms election drama. I have no explanation for their silence on these specifics.

  • Just curious, Do you live in a state where you do not have to register your car, have plates on it, have insurance and have a valid driver license for the vehicle you drive and if you drive a motorcycle or a commercial vehicle requires different licenses and where certain after marked modifications might be illegal.

  • I am 100% behind the NRA!!! I really don’t mind when my kids get shot at school. They should have learned to duck and wear that Kevlar polo shirt. Oh well. In the meantime everybody should buy a gun. No, make that FIVE guns. And I don’t mean any .44 Magnum pea shooters, I mean M60 or any other belt fed machine gun. How about a mini-gun that shoots 6,000 first graders a minute? Only then will we truly be safe.

  • You are right about the Democrats. They made this election a one issue election, health care. Local races did add some other points to their ads but nationally the message was about saving health care. They are going to have to do better in 2020 if they want more wins.

  • Our state has laws for, and the police enforce, all those things. For vehicles, that is.

    But then, vehicles and the right to personally own vehicles (even owning them without paying pricey liability imsurance), aren’t addressed nor mentioned in the 2nd Amendment or any other constitutional amendment.

    Firearms are mentioned, however.

  • But no unfettered right – saying that is simply a rationalization of an amendment arising out of a time in history when the country needed voluntary militias.

    It sometimes appears to me that too many people love their guns and the second amendment more than they love their fellow man. Reducing gun violence is a complex issue and there are no magic solutions but doing nothing is like Pontius Pilate washing his hands.

  • Indeed not.

    More than 50% of the cocaine, marijuana, and other narcotics come from outside Chicago, and nearly every other city in the United States.

    No other city is blaming their own crime on sources for illegal drugs on an alleged “pipeline”.

    Other cities realize that controlling crime falls to the local police agencies.

    The problems in Chicago are very close to home.

    – A completely incompetent city government which is soft on crime.

    – A police force known for corruption, with the honest cops undercut by the city government.

    – A catch and release justice system which results in a significant number of gun crimes being perpetrated by individuals already awaiting trial.


    Yes, Chicago has a problem with crime. No, it is not a result of an imaginary gun pipeline.

    Gun shows nationally are such a low source of guns used in crime the FBI considers them not worth additional control measures.

    Every gun has a serial number, and if dealers in another state are supplying arms knowingly through straw purchases or other illegal means, the FBI and BATF would have closed that trap door years ago.

    Chicago needs to take charge of itself, risk upsetting some of the groups that vote its corrupt city government into office, and clean itself up.

    Elliott Ness showed it could be done decades ago, all it takes is the will.

  • The same thing as all those murdered unicorns and leprauchans. Children are born. No children are killed in abortion.

  • Children are not murdered in abortion. One has to be born to be murdered. You have a tough time separating s1utshaming fantasy with reality.

  • No they don’t. Murdering a pregnant mother in some states is considered a double homicide. The baby is not even born.

  • The mother has to be the victim in such laws. Therefore the fetus is indistinguishable from her. Plus such laws are written by fetus worshipers regardless of basic facts or biology. An assault which leaves a mother alive but causes an abortional act is not homicide. It’s considered assault on the mother.

    Ergo, no children are murdered in abortion. Your position is fiction.

  • The fetus is not indistinguishable from her. Double homicide means 2 people have been murdered. The mother and the baby in her.

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