In The Pipeline: Processing the unimaginable

Tragedies like this catch us off guard, when we are vulnerable, leaving no time to prepare or to absorb the sickening blow.

Then the most brutal events imaginable begin to unfold. In the blur of modern technology and communication, shards of information cut the air and a million mistakes are made and knee-jerk debates are instantly ignited about guns and insanity and evil; but for all the theorizing, anger and outrage, the outcome is never altered. It seems there are always innocent people scythed down like wheat instantly and insanely felled. No media blitzkriegs or Facebook pontificating can change that.

Yes, this is a local column, but didn’t the events at Newtown, Conn., make everything local in an instant? Haven’t they forced us to huddle and weep together, confide together, pray together and somehow grow closer?

It was brought home for me when I learned that one of the teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary, Anne Murphy, was a girl I went to high school with in New York. I had not seen her since she graduated in 1978, but just look at what she went on to do. She was a special education teacher, and by all accounts a superb one.

As Newsday reported, “Anne Marie Murphy died Friday protecting the children she loved. As a gunman fired a fusillade of bullets at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 52-year-old Murphy shielded the bodies of students, authorities told her father, Hugh McGowan of Katonah. Her body was found in a classroom, they told him, covering a group of children who died in the tragic shooting that left 27 dead, including 20 6- and 7-year-olds.”

What she must have been thinking in those violent, chaotic last seconds? Well, we know some of that. She tried to save those students. That is what she was thinking about.

As for the children, what on earth could have been hatching in their precious, innocent little minds? What did they make of the mayhem? In the hail of gunfire, did they even have time to long for their safe and warm homes with their mommies and daddies, and their brothers and sisters and pets? The mind shuts down while trying to resolve such questions. It becomes impossible to process. We cannot fathom this. We are not built to fathom this. It is just that horrific.

This holiday season is different now for all of us but, of course, most of all for the families that lost loved ones. We feel the effects of their ghastly abyss by following the story; we imagine what this gaping maw of agony must be like. But we have no clue.

There is a local shrine that is created each Christmas in honor of a young Huntington Beach man that was taken from this Earth far too early, brutally struck down by a force just as evil as any I’ve ever read about. The young man’s name is Dane Williams. As you may recall, he went missing in San Diego in 2008. Three days later he was found dead, the victim of a sexual assault and murder.

At Christmas time, Dane’s parents, Valen and Jim, hold a little ceremony at a tree where Goldenwest Street meets Pacific Coast Highway. They decorate the tree in honor of Dane, and this year they actually asked everyone who attended to decorate simply in honor of someone near and dear that has passed away. It’s a beautiful tribute by two loving parents that never stop thinking of ways to honor their son, and now others. (You can also visit to learn about their memorial foundation).

I was unable to attend the decorating event this year, but I stopped by early the other morning to place some ornaments, in honor of Dane, Anne Murphy and the other victims killed at Sandy Hook.

Soft white and turquoise light and a cool, misty breeze from the gray-green ocean made for a peaceful, even solemn moment by the tree. It was a private time to think and shed a tear, but also to bask in the basic goodness of people.

There are deeper discussions we will all have soon. But just for now, perhaps it might be best to put our opinions and demands aside while this terrible dust settles so we can just reflect on the pain of loss and the memories of those stripped away from us much too soon. So we can remember what truly matters in life, and give thanks and gratitude during this season of giving. So we can be there for those that need us.

To ponder those things and more, might I recommend stopping by a little tree in Huntington Beach on Pacific Coast Highway. And if you visit, please remember to bring an ornament. Not just for the tree, but for you, too. After all, it’s amazing how much better hanging a little ornament can make one feel.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new “Baseball in Orange County,” from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at