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Sandy & Lonnie Phillips: Inspiration for Trying Times

Anger. Hate. Guns. A lethal combination, as we all know, as we are all still reeling from last weekend’s massacres. Saturday, August 3 and Sunday, August 4th marked the 250th and 251st mass shooting this yearmore mass shootings than the number of days so far in 2019! .

 

How Do We Measure Those Wounds?

 

31 people were killed in El Paso’s and Dayton’s mass shootings last weekend and 51 more were physically wounded. But what about the psychological wounds sustained by the people shopping at the El Paso Walmart and those of whom were in the vicinity of the Dayton shootings? What about the psychological trauma to the victim’s families? How do we measure those wounds? That damage is not quantifiable.

 

Neither is the collective trauma that these events have had on us all. While we may have thought that we had, sadly, become immune to the shock of mass gun violence, we learned this past weekend that we are not. Our feelings of anger, sadness, and fear are palpable. And that’s a good thing.

 

We don’t want mass gun violence to become another “new normal.” And we don’t want to resign ourselves to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of this huge problem. HUGE.

 

Our Feelings of Anger, Sadness, and Fear are Palpable. And That’s a Good Thing.

 

Problems of this magnitude can feel overwhelming. There are no easy solutions—although banning assault rifles would seem to be a good start. Even if we had much needed gun laws, though, we would still need to look beneath the symptoms at the underlying causes. We’d need to change the climate that makes some people—especially some young, white males—believe that taking a gun into a crowd and shooting up everyone in sight is a viable and worthy option. In the face of this terrible and tragic mess, what is there that we can do?

 

I’ve wanted to write about Sandy and Lonnie Phillips since I first heard of them about six months ago. This Friday’s blog is as good a time as any.

 

The Phillips Have Been Paving Their Own Path to Recovery Through the Service of Others

 

Sandy (68 years old) and Lonnie (75) Phillips lost their 24-year-old daughter Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sports journalist, six years ago in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass shooting. (Eleven others were murdered and 58 wounded in the attack.)

 

During a 60-Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper this past March, Sandy and Lonnie  Phillips took us back to that terrible night:

 

Jesse had taken her boyfriend, Brent, to the new Batman movie Batman Rises. When Jesse was shot, Brent went into paramedic mode immediately—that’s what he does for a living.

 

“The phone rang, and I heard the screaming,” Ms. Phillips explains. Brent had called her in the middle of the mayhem.

 

“I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and he said, ‘I think I’ve been shot twice.’”

 

Ms. Phillips knew then that something was terribly wrong. When she asked Brent “Where’s Jesse?” he answered, “I tried.”

 

“Oh god Brent,” Ms. Phillips said, “don’t tell me she’s dead.” But Jesse was dead. And all Brent could muster in the shock of the moment was, “I’m really sorry.”

What else, really, can one offer in that moment?

 

The Phillips Have Seen it All—and Experienced it First-Hand

 

“Your identity has been stripped from you—whether it’s mommy or daddy or father, sister or brother—I no longer have that title,” Ms. Phillips tells Anderson Cooper. She describes the dramatic change and resulting loss of meaning such trauma can have on one’s life. “I no longer have that relationship, and if it’s violence that strips the relationship away, it takes a long time to recover from.”

 

Mr. and Mrs. Phillips have been paving their own path to recovery through the service of others. They quit their jobs shortly after Jesse’s death, rented out their house, and have since devoted their lives to a nonprofit they started called Survivors Empowered

 

Through their organization, the Phillips give emotional support to those directly affected by mass shootings. They also help survivors and families with the practical concerns, such as handling media attention and transporting their loved ones’ bodies back home for their funerals.

 

The Phillips Get to Survivors and Their Families When They’re Needed Most

 

Unfortunately, there are other things survivors and victims have to deal with too—cruelty almost impossible to imagine: Fake GoFundMe sites, where thieves use victims’ names and collect money “for the families” but keep it all for themselves. And Facebook groups that pop up shortly after the tragedies—groups that claim the shootings were a hoax, that loved ones aren’t real but are, instead, just crisis actors. Survivors and family members are often threatened and harassed by conspiracy theorists. The Phillips have seen it all—and experienced it first-hand. They advise others, help them deal with everything that will inevitably come their way.

 

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows grief. Sudden, violent losses add another layer of trauma—a layer that no one can be prepare for in advance. I know this first hand—both my first husband and my mother were killed in car accidents. Yet, what a family experiences when their loved one’s life is taken by violence at another’s hand—that trauma, I cannot even begin to wrap my head around.

 

The Phillips make sure to get to survivors of mass shootings and their families when they’re needed most. Whenever the Phillips hear of a such a tragedy, they pack up their camper and head directly to the scene.

 

“The course of their new lives follows a road map of American tragedies. They started in Aurora, Newtown, then went to Isla Vista, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks.”

There is Always a Course of Action Available

 

I am certain the Phillips are dividing their time between El Paso and Dayton these days. But they are not doing this important work alone.

 

The Phillips are building a network of survivors and family members who have been through a mass shooting and who want to help other new members of “the club that no one ever hopes to join.”

 

As much as we hope that these will be the last mass shootings, odds are there will be more to come. It is easy to retreat into a shell of resignation, but Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’ example demonstrates how there is always a course of action available. There is always something we can do. The Phillips created meaning in their lives when there seemed to be none left. And as long as the mass violence continues, they will continue to get into that camper to help others find strength and meaning too.

 

We never have to feel hopeless or helpless. If the Phillips can take bring light to others after they’d lost what was most precious to them, who are we to become cynical and give up hope? It is in our power to take action—even some small action—call or write to our representatives and demand that they take action on gun control, volunteer or donate to organizations that are working to end gun violence , and in November, go out and vote!

 

“Jesse’s Message”

 

You can find “Jessie’s Message” on the Survivors Empowered website–the prescient words Jessica Ghawi spoke just seven weeks before she was killed: “I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift.”

 

Jesse’s are words of wisdom to keep close. Life is short. And it is truly a gift. While it is always worthwhile to consider, it is at times like these, when life around us has been taken, that we feel the importance of that gift most deeply. It is at times like these that I think of how I want to use that gift. Think of the choices that I make.

 

So, I will leave you this week on a note of hope and with a gift that is at once both a plea and a prayer—one that I hope will inspire you, as it always does me: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”

These are the last two lines of the poem “The Summer Day,”  itself a gift presented to the world by Mary Oliver one of my very favorite poets, who died in January of this year.

 

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Post a comment or send me an email.

What action/actions do you feel drawn to take? And please let us know “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Until next week—I wish you peace.

 

Diane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Nicky Mendenhall on August 12, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    Hi Diane,
    This was a powerful piece. Thank you for being so brave. The Phillips have my admiration. I feel speechless to know how to respond to their actions. Very inspiring and so unselfish. I’m glad to know they are out there bringing light.

    I’m trying to pay attention and hear or see if there are actions I need to take about gun violence.

    • Diane Gottlieb on August 12, 2019 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks, Nicky, for your comment. It is so hard to find the words to respond to such selfless, inspiring acts. I think that’s why it took me so long to write about them Unfortunately, the events of the day gave me no other choice but to highlight the Phillips’ work. I deeply admire them too.

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