(RNS) — There was a mismatch last week between the measured, formulaic voice of the judge intoning the charges for the murder of each of the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the faces of the families of those victims.
The families’ pain was acute. They contorted their faces in grief, mouths agape in disbelief, hands gripping arms of loved ones. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, reading the jury’s unanimous verdict that the killer be sentenced to life in prison, showed no emotion, as befits her role to render a verdict with impartiality.
As the wife of a rabbi who hid inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue four years ago as a gunman killed 11 worshippers, I felt intensely uncomfortable.
During the three-month trial, the injuries of the 17 people at the high school were examined in great medical and clinical detail, probed by lawyers and witnesses and the media. Public revelations of the suffering and agony of the last moments of the victims were made with explicit aspects of how the shooter caused his harm. The pain of the families was not ministered to or considered throughout the trial; naturally, at these culminating moments their emotions and undimmed pain were on full display in the most public of possible arenas.
I hate seeing photos of myself sobbing in the newspaper. It has happened at least twice, including once listening to my husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, speak at a rally against gun violence after shootings in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Gilroy, California.
I don’t want to be seen at emotionally difficult moments by a large number of people. And yet I did watch each family react to the verdict in the Parkland case. I wanted to anticipate what it might be like when the trial for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter — the one who tried to kill my husband and succeeded in killing others — takes place in April.
My husband and I are personally opposed to the death penalty, in keeping with our understanding of the Jewish tradition and what we see as the good of the community. We have written to both Attorney General Merrick Garland and former Attorney General William Barr to ask that the consequence of his heinous acts be a life sentence for the shooter instead.
But I did not feel satisfaction at the sentencing in Florida. I mostly felt profound grief and sadness at the haunted, broken, anguished faces of the families. I felt the continual ache and anger that all 17 of those families are living their lives without their beloved family members at their side since February 14, 2018.
Reading the experiences of Fred Guttenberg, father of Jaime Guttenberg, who was 14 when she was killed in Parkland, is scary for those concerned with the families of victims of crime.
“During the 3rd week of the trial, I started having shortness of breath and heart palpitations sitting in the courtroom,” Guttenberg tweeted on Oct. 13. “While I had not shared this publicly until now, the stress of holding in all of my emotions and not letting it go caused a level of stress for me that had a health consequence.”
I don’t think anyone else needs to experience this stress.
I will not be attending the trial for the Tree of Life shooter unless my husband is forced to testify, in which case I will accompany him. But I do not recommend that others go. It’s hard enough to live in the aftermath of the shooting and continue to be present for the families of those who were murdered without the glare of the media and the questioning of those who are making a legal case.
Families of victims should have agency in how they expose themselves to any aspect of the trial and sentencing; I want to do what I can to enable my husband and the victims in our community not to be re-traumatized by the legal process. One important way to do this is to separate our understanding of what the legal process and verdict are capable of accomplishing and what they will not bring.
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, issued a statement after the Parkland verdict.
“Because I know this from my own still-fresh experience, I hope the families in Parkland can see this as a turning point for them,” she said. “Once the killer is sentenced, they can move toward healing. We can never get our loved ones back, but without a death sentence hanging over us we can remember our loved ones for who they were before the horrific epidemic of gun violence touched their lives.”
The reverend’s words embody the path all those who suffer any kind of grief need to follow.
Learning to cope in the aftermath of the shooting here, I was fortunate to understand that the way to find meaning after violence is to focus on the lives of those killed. Honoring values expressed in the actions of those who are gone, and emulating those deeds and values, can enable those surviving to find purpose.
As Patricia Oliver, mother of Parkland victim Joaquin Oliver, told The New York Times, “We’ve got to keep living. We’re not going to let the defendant take more away from us.”
I propose we read the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a time to kill and a time to heal. I wish there were never a time to kill; however, to heal we need to heed Risher’s words and remember those lost to gun violence for who they were in their lives.
Families of victims and those who care about their lives can exert agency over how they choose to remember those taken from them, no matter what kind of verdict the judicial system renders.
(Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)