Michael Ciaglo, Special to the Denver Post
People hold up lights on their phones at a vigil at the Colorado State Capitol in honor of the lives lost in mass shootings at Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019 in Denver.Nearly 15 years ago, a tragic turn of events brought a spirit-lifting law of human nature to my attention.

 

 

My first husband, Jeff Limerick, died of a stroke on February 1, 2005, at age 56. Within minutes of his passing, hundreds of people wanted to relieve me of my sorrow. But none of them could reverse time and bring Jeff Limerick back.

Innumerable people stepped forward to offer me every imaginable kind of assistance, to the point where I ran out of ways for them to help me. With my sense of humor struggling for a foothold, I took to remarking that this abundant supply of urgent kindness required an imaginative approach to problem-solving.

I could tell one cohort of people that I needed to have a big hole dug in my front yard. Relieved to know that I had identified a way for them to help me, they would assemble with shovels and dig with vigor. When they finished, I would tell them how much they had helped me. The first cohort would then leave; the next set of the aspiring helpful would assemble, and I would tell this group that I had a big hole in my front yard, and it would be great if they would fill it.

With the right orchestration, this cycle could have run for months.

This is the law of human nature that widowhood revealed to me: When human beings confront an untimely death, they are desperate to do something helpful.

When we contemplate the unbearable record of mass shootings in our times, that law of human nature provides our only consolation. No one needs to conduct surveys or polls to convince me that millions of Americans are desperate to do something helpful. The impossibility of reversing the past and restoring life to the dead only adds to the force of their desire to act.

But who will help us figure out what to do?

In the bewildering world of 2019, that is the only question that’s easy to answer.

We should do what emergency room doctors and mayors of cities ask us to do.

Working to save the lives and to repair the injuries of the victims of mass shootings, emergency room doctors know with immediacy what most of us can only imagine from a distance. Meanwhile, mayors take up an equally important mission: to lead their communities in grieving, and then to move, with their citizens, through despair and on toward the actions that would make future mass killings less likely.

Organizations of mayors and associations of physicians have issued recommendations that give us our bearings. Most recently, the United States Conference of Mayors has issued a statement in support of two bipartisan bills that would strengthen the effectiveness of background checks for firearm purchases.

Back in 2005, a wave of kindness swept into my life, to the point where I soon ran out of actions for the helpful to perform. In 2019, the desire to help prevent future mass shootings is at flood tide, and there are defined and reasonable actions for the empathetic and compassionate to take. Linked with the guidance of mayors and the emergency room doctors, citizens who yearn to help can escape fatalism and get to work.

Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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