Victims' families describe living with the grief brought by mass shootings: "It was like I died"

Living with grief brought by mass shootings

Last Updated Aug 27, 2019 9:58 AM EDT

With Congress set to return in two weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ratcheting up pressure on lawmakers to take action on gun violence. The country's most powerful Democrat said yesterday she would not take "no" for an answer after two mass shootings this month.

But any push for reform faces opposition in the Republican-led Senate. As Congress struggles to address the issue, we wanted to talk with people who live with the repercussions of mass shootings every day.

Stephanie Melendez's father was killed in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month. 

The Reverend Sharon Risher lost her mother and cousins in the 2015 Charleston church massacre.

Richard Martinez's son Chris was killed during a rampage in Isla Vista, California, in 2014.
 
And Nelba Marquez-Greene's 6-year-old daughter Ana was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

Together they spoke of the seemingly impossible task of moving on after tragedy.

"I don't want to move on"

"You go through periods of time when you do feel, the worst thing that's ever happened to me has already happened to me," Martinez said. "But at the same time, I'm never gonna reco— I don't want to get over it."

"Four years later, I can't call my mom and ask her, 'How do you cook gumbo?'" Risher said. "To go to Charleston now is very difficult for me. 

"There's times I still pick up my phone ready to call my dad," Melendez said. "And I can't." 

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Richard Martinez

Martinez said Chris was his only child and getting over his death seemed like a betrayal of his son's memory. But Martinez says he still has to go on.

"I feel like I have an obligation as a parent to my son," Martinez said. "And that's the work that I do to try to stop gun violence."

Mental illness and Second Amendment rights

Some lawmakers have said mass shootings are a mental health issue, even though experts in the field say the evidence doesn't back that up. Opponents of gun control measures cite the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. Marquez-Greene takes offense at that.

"I have a right to see my daughter enter eighth grade this fall, and I don't get to do that," Marquez-Greene said. "And I am grossly, as a mental health professional, offended by the words of our president and members of Congress linking mental illness to mass shootings.

Martinez doesn't really see it as a mental health issue either.

"The vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not violent," Martinez said. "Most of the gun violence that we see on a daily basis is related more to domestic violence and misogyny. One thing that isn't talked about a lot is suicides. Families who've lost a loved one to suicide suffer the same grief that we do."

Thoughts of suicide

Marquez-Greene said she thought about taking her own life after the death of her daughter.

"I would say in the early days, it was very dark," Marquez-Greene said. "And I hope by me saying yes, others can be encouraged by hearing it and ask for help they need."

"It was like I died," Martinez said. "Chris was everything to me. He was the center of my life. I think the reason why suicide doesn't really— Chris wouldn't want that. You know, I'm living from— I'm all that's left of my son's memory."

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Nelba Marquez-Greene

Marquez-Greene said mostly she wanted to be with her daughter again.

"And I would, if I could, I would just say, 'I'm so sorry,'" Marquez-Greene said. "You know, 'I'm so sorry you didn't get what you deserved.' But I'll stay here for the work that needs to be done. But I just wanna be with her."

The race of the shooters

Even though race isn't a motivator in every shooting, Marquez-Greene said it's a factor that should be talked about.

"It permeates everything," Marquez-Greene said. "I'll tell you an interesting conversation my husband said to me shortly after the shooting. And he goes, 'You know, I've spent my whole life as a black man in America trying to convey that I'm a safe person, especially in white environments. I look people in the eye. I make sure not to take up too much space, because I'm a 6'6", 300-pound black man. Yet, a white person, boy, killed my daughter, and I'm not allowed to look at him or look at others in that way. I'm supposed to give a grace that I have never been given as a black man in America. However, I will. I wish people would give that to us.' And I sat in the passenger seat and I just cried with him."

It "makes your soul cry"

When asked if they would see value in people seeing the damage that was caused when their loved ones were shot, the group had differing opinions.

"They need to see it," Risher said. "People are visual learners. People need to see the devastation."

Marquez-Greene thinks it's a fair question, but wouldn't want people to see her daughter's body after she was shot "many times."

"If this beautiful 6-year-old baby, her living picture, her voice, her affect, everything about her alive didn't change you, her photo dead wouldn't change you either," Marquez-Greene said.

"I say, if gun violence in America does not make your heart hurt, makes your soul cry, if you can't feel that, then you can't feel anything," Risher added.

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  Reverend Sharon Risher

On receiving support from their communities

In the wake of mass shootings, communities have come together with vigils and slogans like "El Paso Strong." Melendez said she appreciated that, but it had a dual effect.

"I know it's support," Melendez said, "But it's, like, a reminder that this happened. It's a reminder every day."

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Stephanie Melendez

"In the beginning, it felt somewhat comforting," Marquez-Greene said. "'Oh, they haven't forgotten.' But I think eventually people do move on, and the bumper stickers fade. It is really, really wonderful to cheer 'El Paso Strong' or 'Sandy Hook Strong,' but it is even more helpful to us if that came with a commitment to lift us up forever. Because we're not just grieving year one. I will grieve Ana until the day I die."

Talking about forgiveness

"My sister was the first one to say, 'I forgive you' on the TV, and I started screaming and hollering," Risher said. "Like, 48 hours and you're talking about forgiveness? It took me almost a year, even being a reverend."

Risher said she's forgiven the shooter now, if only for her own emotions.

"In order to get all of that anger and rage, I had to get to a point in understanding what I really believed in my faith, and to be able to be free," Risher said.

Martinez said he could never forgive the shooter who killed his son. Marquez-Greene didn't understand why forgiveness is so frequently picked up as a narrative after shootings.

"When did this become my responsibility to absolve the person?" Marquez-Greene said. "Because I feel like it's another way to let folks off the hook."

Families of shooting victims: "It's like a hell's lottery"

Ultimately, Marquez-Greene thinks the country needs to stop putting people in the position she's in now.

"We cannot as a nation say that is okay, because I didn't sign a 6-year-old up for war. I signed her up for first grade," she said. "We have to address the injustice that we are visiting on American families. It's like a hell's lottery, where if you lose today, you lose today. And that's not OK."

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential. 

Watch Gayle King's full interview on CBSN at 8 p.m.