Michele Shanahan Demoss and Aaron Sullivan reflect each day on gifts that have helped them cope with tragedy.
Demoss rises just after 5 a.m. to care for a new stepgranddaughter, a joyous light in a life forever marked by the death of her 11-year-old daughter.
Blair Shanahan Lane died July 5, 2011, after being struck by celebratory gunfire the previous night near the Truman Sports Complex.
And through advocacy and charitable work, Demoss fights to make certain the community never forgets the lessons of Blair’s life and death.
“I live my life like she is standing next to me,” Demoss said. “I want to make life better. How could you not want to? Be the solution…. Be the change.”
Sullivan’s life changed the same instant Demoss’ crumbled.
He owned the gun that he and three other men passed around as they fired across Riss Lake that Fourth of July evening. He served two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, admitting at his sentencing hearing that his conduct was stupid, negligent and lethal. It was not known who fired the shot that killed Blair.
But now, each day before he goes to work as a municipal equipment operator, Sullivan reflects on a moment after the February 2012 hearing when Blair’s father approached him outside the courtroom.
His eyes shot red with tears, Jason Lane forgave Sullivan for the death of his daughter. Sullivan grabbed the lifeline and accepted Lane’s embrace.
The sorrow remains for his role in Blair’s death, Sullivan said recently. But the forgiveness enables him to manage the guilt.
“When (Blair’s father) came, it was like a ton of bricks came off my shoulders,” Sullivan said. “He took that burden of guilt off of me.”
How people rebuild their lives after a violent death, especially that of a child, matters a lot for Kansas City right now.
More than a dozen area children have died or been seriously injured in recent months by gunfire and other forms of child abuse.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in January that she had identified a “disturbing trend of child abuse and death” in the area.
“Failing to protect these children is society’s greatest failing,” Baker said in a written statement. “We must do better.”
Squarely confronting the emotional torrent is critical for both the survivors and the perpetrators of such violence if they are to move forward positively and forgive others and even themselves, experts said.
The work is difficult and carries no guarantee of success. But even the effort is valuable, said Julie Gulledge, who leads the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.
“Most homicide families do not forgive,” Gulledge said. “They say they do, but I’m not sure they really do. They say, ‘It’s not up to me to forgive; it’s up to God.’ But even that is helpful.”
Sullivan lived a nightmare in the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, he said.
Depressed and losing weight, his thoughts turned constantly to the shame of what he and his friends had done so carelessly.
“We took somebody’s life,” he said. “That tore me up.”
Sullivan said he understood the family’s anger as he pleaded for forgiveness at the hearing. That made the moment of forgiveness all the more humbling when it happened, he said.
But Sullivan said he never expected that personal absolution would redeem what he owed to society.
“It took a lot for him to do that,” Sullivan recalled. “He forgave me for my mistakes, and now I have to go pay my debt.
“It made it easier for me to do my time.”
Sullivan’s contrition paid an additional benefit when he stepped onto a prison yard for the first time. Many inmates, some hardened killers, had heard of his case from media reports of Blair’s death.
“They said, ‘You manned up; you took responsibility,’” Sullivan said. “They had respect for me for stepping up to the plate.”
Sullivan has had no contact with Lane, who lives out of state, since that day in court. The Kansas City Star was not able to reach Lane for this article.
Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey knows how hard forgiveness is, even for those who are supposed to be good at it.
On June 10, 2002, a gunman entered the Nodaway County, Mo., abbey and killed two monks and seriously wounded two others.
The shooter committed suicide after the attacks, but Polan still worked with his brothers on forgiveness.
“As I tried to lead the community, there was a quiet voice saying to me that you have to bring the community to forgiveness or this will become corrosive and toxic,” Polan said recently. “Otherwise, this act would stay with us.”
Some monks at Conception came around quickly, while others found the path more difficult, Polan said. It’s a lesson for all that even monks, whose lives were supposed to revolve around hospitality and grace, found forgiveness difficult work.
“For some it took considerably longer to work through that, but eventually, they were able to say, ‘I forgave,’” Polan said.
And the benefits of forgiveness go far beyond emotions and spirit, said Everett Worthington, a clinical psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who has researched the value of forgiveness.
Studies have shown that those who cling to anger or guilt have more cardiovascular problems and suppressed immune systems, Worthington said. Those who forgive are less depressed, have fewer anger problems and lower levels of obsessive-compulsive disorders, he said.
“From a psychological standpoint, you get a sense of resolution that doesn’t keep empowering rumination,” Worthington said. “People still know what they’ve done, but they don’t have to keep playing it over and over again.”
Demoss’ experience shows that forgiveness is no miracle cure for haunting grief.
Though she’s forgiven Sullivan, Demoss said she still sees a therapist weekly for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The hole in her life that Blair once filled now is consumed with charity and advocacy. Her nonprofit, Blair’s Foster Socks, collects clothing for foster children, a need that her daughter saw and worked to fill while she was alive.
Demoss also serves as an ambassador for the Midwest Transplant Network, which helped give Blair’s organs to others in need. And staying in touch with some of those recipients keeps her daughter’s legacy alive in a very tangible way, Demoss said.
“We share DNA,” Demoss said. “We’re family. It’s just a gift.”
And she plans to again lobby the Missouri General Assembly for passage of what’s been called “Blair’s Law,” a statute that would designate as a felony the act of negligently discharging a firearm inside a municipality.
The politics have been harder than she imagined, but she still hopes.
Caring for a new stepgranddaughter and the bustle of her public life have been a tonic, Demoss said. But she cautions not to read her activity as a sign that she’s somehow back to normal.
She marks her kitchen calendar, on the fourth day of every month, with the number of years, months and days since her daughter was shot.
“People say to me, ‘You’re an inspiration,’” Demoss said with a laugh. “Well, I’m an inspiration that’s gained 55 pounds and I’m an inspiration who can’t get out of bed some days.”
Still, Demoss is on the right path, Gulledge said.
Counseling, setting aside bitterness and doing something to remember a loved one is the healthy way forward, she said.
“The best way to start healing is to do something in their memory, either a charity, or a cause or even a scholarship,” Gulledge said. “Do something to make something positive out of it and help others.”