By Jooyoung Lee
As we reflect on last week's tragedy in Isla Vista, Calif., many of us will become obsessed with the shooter. We'll get sucked into major news coverage, and we'll re-tweet and share stories that offer clues into his motives. Some of us might even read his manifesto or watch his narcissistic "confession" video. And when the dust settles, we'll be giving this deranged person exactly what he wanted: our collective attention.
In the process, we'll forget about the families of those slain in last Friday's mass shooting. In America, we become fixated on villains. We live in a culture that elevates mass shooters, serial killers, and other criminals into celebrities. When this happens, we divert our attention away from the families of victims. This is a tragedy.
I first learned about this while spending time with the families of murder victims in Philadelphia, a city that averages a murder per day. Many times, we shower the families of murder victims with support in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. If there's any silver lining in the wake of these horrific events, it's in our collective responses to them. For brief bursts of time, we step outside of ourselves and empathize with those mourning their losses. We imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one and, along with the families, our hearts are broken. We send heartfelt or encouraging e-mails, hold candlelight vigils, and find ways to show our collective support for families affected by gun violence.
Then we move on. It may be a week later, or a month, but we inevitably retreat into our own lives and concerns. We lose track of the mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and extended families of those slain in shootings. As we move on with our lives, they wake up every day and deal with the same impossible reality: Their loved one is gone and isn't coming back.
During my time in Philadelphia, I met a courageous woman named Bette Clark, a single mother who has lived through the kind of anguish that most of us can never imagine.
Bette's youngest son, Timmy Clark, was killed in a grisly doubleexecution-style murder in 2007, along with Damien Holloway, a friend of the family. At first, Bette received an outpouring of support. The annual candlelight vigil for Timmy was attended by hundreds of supporters. Extended family, friends, and neighborhood acquaintances came out in droves, sang songs, said prayers, and lit candles in his memory.
Bette also received support from other families of murder victims. She drew strength from mothers mourning their children online. They seemed to understand her pain in ways that others could not. They sent her warm e-mails and listened to her whenever she was down. All of this helped her cope with the loss of her son.
But, as time went by, this support started to wither. The attendance at the annual vigils became smaller. People wondered why she couldn't just "move on." Her sons Joe and Matt supported her the best they could, but they too were suffering. Years later, Joe lost a lengthy fight with depression and substance abuse. Bette and Matt continue living in grief, but few outside their family and closest friends know the additional tragedies that have struck their lives.
Bette's story is one among thousands. In 2013, there were more than 16,000 homicides in the United States. Like Bette and her children, the families of these murder victims will continue to suffer long after our attention has shifted away from their plight.
In the wake of this latest tragedy, let's refocus our attention on the families of victims. Instead of fixating on the shooter, or retreating into our own lives, let's remember and honor those who are left behind. Their lives are often difficult and grinding; their grief is immeasurable. Healing from murder is rarely - if ever - a quick or complete process. The families of those slain in Isla Vista and other communities ravaged by gun violence need us now and will for many days to come.
Jooyoung Lee is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. email@example.com