Sharing their grief

In plain words, Amish detail a year spent mourning, healing after shootings at school

October 02, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

NICKEL MINES, Pa. — NICKEL MINES, Pa.-- --Walk down these winding roads and all appears peaceful. Black aprons flap on a clothesline. Boys kick scooters past apple trees heavy with fruit. A woman rides by in a buggy, two children at her side, and raises a hand in silent greeting.

There are few visible signs of the tragedies that the Amish have wrestled with in the past year - the five schoolgirls buried in white dresses, the wounded girls who have undergone months of therapy, the boys overwhelmed with guilt that they could not stop the gunman.

Today marks one year since a milk truck driver barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse here, shot 10 girls and took his own life.

As members of a faith that prizes humility and modesty, the victims' families and friends have turned their backs on the public grieving that is so much a part of modern American culture, choosing instead to heal their wounds in private. School is closed today, and last week the Amish weren't discussing the anniversary with strangers.

But over the past year, members of the community have shared their grief on paper. In scores of letters to the weekly Amish newspaper Die Botschaft they have relived that day and reflected on the struggles of the past 12 months. Interspersed with news of the weather and crops, the plain-worded letters tell of piercing grief, small triumphs and deeply rooted faith. Taken together, they provide unique insight into the ways that residents of Nickel Mines have mourned their daughters while summoning the spiritual strength to move forward.

In a letter to the paper two weeks after the shooting, Enos K. Miller described a nightmarish journey with his son and daughter-in-law to two hospitals, hours apart, where two of his grandchildren - Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her 7-year-old sister, Lena - were taken off life support and died in their parents' arms.

"One of the ... questions quite often asked to me is, `How's it going?'" Miller wrote in mid-November. "Sometimes I don't know how to answer that one. Then I just shrug my shoulders and say, `I guess alright.' Then I feel somewhat guilty of telling a lie. It might be more truthful to say, `I don't know.'"

In another letter, the parents of a semi-comatose girl described the patience needed to care for her and the joy of seeing her smile. A neighbor urged readers to pray for a family that had one daughter killed and another wounded - they had a "home sick" feeling, she wrote.

Die Botschaft - "The Message" in German - compiles the letters in an 80-page newspaper, relying on dispatches from several hundred "scribes" in Amish districts throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. The correspondents' accounts are arranged in neat columns without pictures.

Before the tragedy, the letters from here skipped through news from the church districts - religious services, visitors, births, marriages and the occasional notable meal - while weaving in humorous anecdotes. After the shootings, they grew more personal.

In one, Miller described being at his job the morning of Oct. 2 when he saw helicopters hovering near his home. He called a neighbor, who told him about the shooting.

His first thought: "Oh, no, the two granddaughters," he wrote in the understated prose that characterizes the newspaper. "After I hung up, the strength seemed to drain from me. But somehow I could keep going."

Quick to forgive

From the earliest dispatches after the shooting, the writers from "Paradise, Pa.," the census-designated area that includes the community of Nickel Mines, conveyed the community's sympathy for the family of the gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV. The Amish, abiding by a deeply held belief in forgiveness, quickly reached out to the shooter's relatives, visiting their homes, welcoming them to memorial services and offering donations to Roberts' widow and children.

Roberts, a 32-year-old father of three who was not Amish, lived in the neighboring community of Georgetown. He arrived at the school that morning with three guns and two knives, and police believe he intended to sexually assault the girls.

After ordering the male students, teacher and other adults from the school, Roberts lined up the girls by the blackboard, bound them with plastic ties and, as police circled the building, shot each at close range. Then he turned the gun on himself.

One Amish neighbor was with the gunman's parents when they learned what their son had done. He held them for an hour as they wept, Miller wrote in a letter published in early November.

"Henry had his arms around their shoulders while they were crying their hearts out (so it seemed) with a towel in front of their faces," he wrote.

A couple of weeks after the shooting, parents and grandparents of the victims met with some of Roberts' relatives at the nearby fire hall.

Uplifting experience

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