OP-ED: Identifying with a murder victim


I didn't know Alison Parker. But I have never felt more connected to the death of someone I've never met.

She had my name. My parents also chose one "l" in Alison. I've been a 24-year-old reporter. I've reported from the field. Thinking of my father getting that phone call makes me feel a sort of sharp pain beneath my bones even I, a professional writer, can't define.

When these things happen, we're quick to reason, to compartmentalize, to perform mental gymnastics to help ourselves sleep at night. It's self-preservation: "There must be a reason this happened," or even, if we don't want to phrase it this way, "This couldn't happen to me."

But I couldn't find the right levels of remove to put this particular shooting — a different one from the slew in Chicago that same day — in a rear cabinet of my brain.

This is not the first time I've contemplated the tragedy of a young life cut short. I live in a city where it happens all too often. As my colleague Peter Nickeas noted last week, people are shot all the time. Each one of those deaths is tragic, and each of those families feels pain.

This one in the Roanoke, Va., area particularly hit home.

She, too, had an older brother. She, too, reassured her parents she wouldn't report from war zones. She, too, always called to check in, her father said (which brings back memories of my attempts to pre-empt my mother's worried texts when cranes collapsed or bombs were diffused when I lived in New York City). She, too, had a seemingly stoic, strong father whose emotional reservoirs flooded with a fierce protection toward his daughter. Her father, Andy Parker, vows that his life's work will be ending gun violence.

My father owns guns. I have family members who live in rural Missouri, on gravel roads. I'm not troubled that they feel better with that protection, other than the fact that it adds a wrinkle to any potential surprise visits. Me, I've never fired a gun. And I've lived in New York City, where many people don't get the allure of firearms. But I'm confident, after living in both worlds, there is much in the middle to plumb for solutions.

The husband of the surviving Virginia shooting victim told The New York Times, "Whether it was a gun or machete or ax, it doesn't make any difference."

Respectfully, there is a difference. A machete or ax might have allowed the victims to fight back or get away.

And to those who push the focus in these cases to the perpetrator, not the weapon: Yes, let's fix mental health. Yes, we are a country that can multitask.

It's natural to seek reason — it makes tragedies feel less random and allows us to put things in some kind of order. But we should resist the urge to reason away something that's scary and someone else's sorrow.

It is terrifying. It is an aching pain. When we feel uncomfortable, we should ask why. We should sit with that discomfort, feel someone else's agony, question why it's there, realize that pain can't be paused, or clicked away from, for others.

It's been a few days, and the news has moved on. The horror already seems sepia-toned, a bit muted. I wondered if this essay was even too late.

But time is also a form of stepping away. What a luxury, to move on. What good fortune to not be planning the funeral — this time.

I think about my father, not settling into work but, instead, planning my funeral. Of him wearing the new suit he bought for my grandmother's funeral two years ago, silently putting his arm around my mother and my brother, as they sit in a pew, as the headlines move on.

We shouldn't step away after these shootings and say, "This happens sometimes," sit back with folded arms, offer no ideas, meet every solution with an argument.

She had my name, and my job. And I keep thinking of my father getting that phone call.

— Alison Bowen is a Chicago Tribune lifestyles reporter.