My Sister's Murder Is Motivating Me to Turn My Election Despair Into Action

It feels like my life’s work of ensuring all people be treated with respect and dignity is heavily threatened.
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Paula Schmidt
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It feels like my life’s work of ensuring all people be treated with respect and dignity is heavily threatened.

There have been three times in my life when I cried uncontrollably for days. The first time was when my best friend and colleague was killed by an angry teenager; I cried every day for a month. The second was when an angry man, packing an assault weapon, two rifles, and a pistol, strolled into work at a Boston tech company and murdered seven people, including my sister. That time, I cried for a year. The third time was on November 8, when an angry mob elected a hateful, bullying, narcissist to run our nation. 

It is no consolation, but, at least by now, I understand that with grief comes strength.

I’m not proud of the fact that I cry uncontrollably for days on end. It is embarrassing to walk through the streets of my town with swollen eyes, wiping my dripping nose with a balled up tissue because, in spite of the insane, upside down, election results, I have no choice but to go on with my life. “Hay fever,” I tell people, even though it is near winter.

The lie seems even more important now because I don’t know who to trust anymore. The man crossing toward me in the intersection — is he the man who just voted away my right to feel safe as a woman on this street? Is the white woman walking behind me one who voted against all those she perceives as different? I am a white woman. Does the black kid riding past me on his bike think I am one of those people screaming for white nationalism? Will we ever trust each other again?

About a week before my best friend’s death, she spoke about a reckless teenager who revved his car engine and sped through her neighborhood whenever he needed to feel powerful. She had warned him to slow down, that he was going to hurt someone. He just flipped her off. A few days later, he irresponsibly ran her over while she delivered newspapers with her little daughter.

My best friend and I had worked together in a nursing home, and, being a social worker, it was my job to break the tragic news to our colleagues. I led them into a meeting room, expecting to console them, to be a strong vessel for their grief, but the mascara streaking down my face betrayed me; they ended up consoling me instead. As our tears began puddling together on the white laminate conference table, we sat around, the rage that sought to drag all of us down called us out to make her life, and ours, matter. Some joined charities and some took food to shut-ins. Some created friend groups among the elderly and infirmed we worked with. Our collective desire to combat injustice through positive social action became our strength for years to come.

It took a lot longer to get over my sister’s murder. She was killed the day after Christmas, the first holiday we hadn’t spent together in years. Though my sister lived in Boston and I lived in New York, we made it a point to get together every few months to share my kids, to eat too many donuts and to watch old family movies of swimming in the ocean with our brothers. On humid summer nights, we would sit on my porch and plan all the trips we were going to take together when work and kids were behind us.

Me and my sister Cheryl in 1985.

Me and my sister Cheryl in 1985.

When I saw the multitude of bullet holes shot through my sister’s 110 pound body by a selfish grown man wanting notoriety and power, the hate and anger welled up in me to the point where I began to lose sight of who I was. This time, when I stared into the murky, wet reflection on my table, I saw a twisted and contorted face full of confusion over how anyone was this evil, how humanity was this perverse. Nothing felt safe anymore. Everything felt ugly, unpredictable and hostile. My tears expressed my mourning, but my anger pointed me down the same dark, dank path where her murderer existed. I wanted payback. I wanted to watch him hang. My own humanity was unraveling.

I knew I had to tame what was festering inside me, so I got a new job. Working as an advocate for survivors of brain injury may sound like a small thing, but helping people receive services and support and helping them avoid discrimination and bullying was a great way to add light to a world that seemed to be dimming.

Through the years, I have re-read every one of the hundreds of kind, sympathetic letters I received after my sister’s very public murder. These, along with the many donations made in her name toward smarter gun laws, told me other people were acting too, but not with hate. They were acting with love, empathy and concern for our country instead. These letters were what got me through.

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Now, it feels like my life’s work of ensuring all people be treated with respect and dignity is heavily threatened. The KKK is marching while mosques are being ransacked. Our brown brothers and sisters are being harassed just because they exist. My own family — a diverse group of beautiful people from many races, religions and lifestyles — is now threatened by those looking for someone to blame for their failures. People I once thought were kind suddenly seem changed, emboldened to show the world the prejudice and scapegoating that eats away their brain. I once conned myself into wishfully thinking that at least some of these hatreds and bigotries were behind us. This was foolish complacency on my part.

After this dirty election, I am once again staring into the familiar misty, wet layer forming on my worn-out kitchen table, a shadowy mirror telling me, one more time, that love is fleeting. This time, I am mourning for my country that once sought to be a fair and stable place for all people. I am sad for the Constitution that is quickly becoming tattered, threatened by those who choose loathing over good will.

People smugly tell me that I must accept a president who is proud to be a sexual predator, a white supremacist, and a fascist. That is like asking me to be an accomplice in their abhorrent plan to rid America of "others." I have tried to change the minds of the people I know, but they cover their ears and regurgitate the words of hate they read on Breitbart. I lower my head and stare into the reflection that reveals my feelings of contempt. 

 A new confrontation with myself. A new call to action. Don’t give up now.

My disbelief and grief are already morphing into a strong resolve to work even harder. This time, there will be legions of people with me, advocating for social justice and for the democracy we believe in. Our ideas are already melding together, mobilizing us into our own personal activism. We will care for the disabled and teach our children to be empathetic. We will stand up for our brown neighbors. We will march and vote. And we will fight back to ensure, through small and large deeds, that our country isn’t overcome by hate.