Cristal Lake-Sanders and her family celebrated Independence Day this year at her in-laws’ Brandermill home, where they enjoyed holiday festivities and the community’s annual fireworks show.
It wasn’t until the following day that she learned a 7-year-old boy had been accidentally shot while walking to watch fireworks with his father near Swift Creek Reservoir.
Brendon Mackey died July 5 after being struck in the top of his head by a stray bullet that fell from the sky. The random nature of the incident left even Lake-Sanders, a licensed professional counselor with more than 10 years of experience, struggling to make any sense of the tragedy.
“It definitely does shake everyone to the core,” she said during an interview last week. “As a parent, your heart just breaks because you put yourself in their position – it’s the worst thing that can happen.”
Another local mental health professional said the inclination toward “absolute incredulousness” is natural as a community grieves the loss of an innocent young life.
According to Dr. Henry Morris, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who’s been in practice for more than 40 years, communal reaction to trauma unfolds in the same mostly predictable manner that individuals process grief and loss.
Denial, the first of the stages identified by author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, “On Grief and Grieving,” is manifested in county residents’ struggle to comprehend how and why the rising third grader at Hopkins Elementary was taken so suddenly from his family.
“The sheer statistical improbability of it makes it harder to deal with,” said Leighanne Chilmaid, owner of the Chesterfield private preschool where Mackey’s aunt, Kelly, works as a teacher.
Communities tend to progress quickly into the next stage – anger – which manifests itself in the Mackey case as rage that somebody could’ve been thoughtless enough to fire a gun into the air in such a heavily populated neighborhood.
Morris, who has an office in Midlothian, recalled an acquaintance talking last week about the need to “find the person and rip him apart.”
Such adult emotions can be confusing to children in the aftermath of a tragedy. Michelle Johnston, a parent educator with Commonwealth Parenting, a Richmond-based nonprofit, noted that smart phones and other technology make it difficult for parents to shelter their kids from the almost constant stream of news updates.
“Kids have more at their fingertips than they can handle,” she said.
That makes it incredibly important for parents to “stay available” and maintain open lines of communication with their children instead of leaving them susceptible to rumors and half-truths gleaned from friends, Johnston said.
“Everyone processes events like this differently,” she added. “It’s relatable, so kids can put themselves in [Mackey’s] shoes. They could start to feel anxious and worry if the same thing could happen to them.”
Mackey’s funeral was held Friday afternoon in Brandermill Church at Sunday Park. He was laid to rest at Sunset Memorial Park in Chester.
Meanwhile, county police continue to search for the person who fired a handgun into the air in the vicinity of Swift Creek Reservoir around 9 p.m. on July 4.
Lake-Sanders said that if the shooter was one of her clients, she’d advise the person to come forward – both for his own good and to allow Mackey’s family to move forward in the grieving process.
“If this is any kind of feeling human being, the guilt must be eating him up,” she added.
That’s why the members of one of Morris’ therapy groups believe the person who fired the fatal shot will eventually turn himself in to police.
“My first thought was that I’d never want to face the shame and repercussions for doing something like that, but they were talking about how humans need to achieve some sense of closure,” Morris said. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”