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In the shadow of loss, a mother’s long search for happiness

After losing her daughter in a shooting at a Colorado movie theater in 2012, Sandy Phillips was determined to help others grieving as deeply as she was

By MATT SEDENSKY, AP National Writer
Published: November 5, 2023, 5:46am
2 Photos
Lonnie Phillips, right, and his wife, Sandy, sift through their belongings stored at a friend's garage in Lone Tree, Colo., Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. Since Sandy's daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in a 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater, the pace of other mass killings only intensified. Instead of tighter gun laws, some states loosened them. Exhausted, disgusted and impoverished, the Phillipses recently moved to Mexico.
Lonnie Phillips, right, and his wife, Sandy, sift through their belongings stored at a friend's garage in Lone Tree, Colo., Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. Since Sandy's daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in a 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater, the pace of other mass killings only intensified. Instead of tighter gun laws, some states loosened them. Exhausted, disgusted and impoverished, the Phillipses recently moved to Mexico. (AP Photo/David Goldman) Photo Gallery

AJIJIC, Mexico (AP) — There’s a look Sandy Phillips came to know each time she arrived somewhere a gunman had made famous. Her road trip through mass shooting sites went on for a decade and always seemed to have a new stop. When she reached it, she’d lock eyes with someone and see the catatonia, as plain as the weight of every leaden step they’d taken since the news that upended their life.

She, too, had inched through days when all the world’s laughter went silent and its beauty was lost. In a morning fog, she’d question if it all was a nightmare, and in the black of night, when the grisly visions clawed her awake, she’d lie there wishing it was she who had died. Life became a torturous cycle punctuated by her own sobbing. She was sure she was creeping toward insanity.

Now she found herself in Newtown or Parkland or Uvalde or whatever fresh hell had just been put on the map. She had lessons to share, advice that could only be amassed by someone who’d lived through the same. So, she’d clasp the hands of the mourning and ask about the ones they’d been robbed of and mouth words that could surprise her as much as those who listened.

“You will,” she said confidently, “find joy again.”

She repeated it more times than she can count. She’d show up at the school or nightclub or church or wherever the latest battle erupted in this new American war, and she’d say them to the parents who put children in tiny caskets and the partners who never got to say goodbye. She knew them to be true even if she had to repeat them to convince herself.

It would be a journey, she told them, to rediscover happiness. A journey she was on, too.

Here is life before Phillips’ daughter was shot: She is sharing her dream house with her dream husband and has just landed her dream job. She goes to cocktail parties. She is fun to be around. Come summer, there are carefree vacations, and at year’s end, there are Christmas trees in every room. All the teenage strife that once occupied her San Antonio home has faded. Her son is suddenly a responsible adult. Her daughter has blossomed into a poised and professional woman, on the cusp of college graduation and eager to make a name for herself as a sports reporter.

And here is life after: The dream home is lost to bankruptcy. The dream job is abandoned. She and her dream husband barely want to leave the house, much less fake their way through socializing. Even her best friend of decades has tired of her gloom. There will be no vacation. There will be no Christmas. All of that ended with a middle-of-the-night call on July 20, 2012, that caused her to slide down the wall, screaming the same two words over and over.

“Jessi’s dead!” she bellowed. “Jessi’s dead!”

Just hours earlier, she’d texted back and forth with her daughter, Jessica Ghawi, the electric 24-year-old who oozed so much enthusiasm, kindness and impulsivity that she reminded her mother of a Labrador puppy. From the time she was a little girl, she was marked by her empathy, befriending the friendless and comforting the crying. She was fiery, she was silly, she was irrepressible. She sailed down a mountain dressed like a banana the first time she skied. She sweet-talked her way to the front of the airport security line when she was late for a flight. Her smile sparkled, her conversation never ended, she stopped traffic in a dress.

And now she was gone.

Details dripped out from inside the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where Ghawi was among the dozen killed, lives ended by a man with guns he never should have had.

And, for months, Phillips sunk into a paralyzing haze.

“This really happened. This is not a dream. This is my life now,” she’d realize when she awoke.

Before, when headlines flashed of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Fort Hood and so many others, she absorbed the horror of it all for just a moment before turning away and returning to her safe and happy life. Something had to be done, she knew, but she left the task to others.

Now, it felt as if her whole identity was challenged. How could she ever again believe the idea that her country was the home of life, liberty and happiness, when her daughter’s life and her own happiness had been taken?

She felt her daughter nagging at her, not just to rise from bed day after agonizing day, but to do something more.

As the first Christmas that Phillips would not celebrate neared, another shooting erupted, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. An anti-violence group reached out, asking if she might consider visiting Newtown to meet parents of the dead. She said yes and found herself in a room where she saw that familiar expression.

“We looked like that five months ago,” she said to her husband Lonnie, who had been in Jessi’s life since she was a little girl and saw her as a daughter of his own.

There, they met David Wheeler, who recalled learning of the shooting that claimed Phillips’ daughter. “Those poor people,” he thought at the time, pausing just for a moment before returning to work. Now, two of those people were before him, and he was living through the same.

Wheeler’s 6-year-old son Ben was silly, rambunctious, athletic and funny, and loved being the center of attention. He sang Beatles songs in perfect pitch and shrieked in glee whenever a lighthouse came into view. He was about to get the training wheels off his bike, about to lose his baby teeth, about to start playing soccer, about to be so many things.

Phillips held Wheeler and offered a bevy of advice. She told him to forgive himself even as his mind would trick him into thinking he could have prevented his son’s death. She told him to think of himself first and take the time to grieve before jumping into advocacy. She told him he might lose friends and be the target of conspiracy theories. She told him he’d be happy again.

Wheeler was left stunned that anyone who’d been through what Phillips had could stand before him just months later and express any sense of optimism about life.

“Not only do you wonder if you’re going to ever be happy or feel happy or find happiness ever again,” Wheeler said, “you wonder if it’s wrong to do that.”

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Phillips’ very presence gave him hope. And for her, a sense of purpose was found.

For the first time since Jessi’s death, a new life crystallized. Phillips vowed to travel to as many shooting sites as she could.

She’d pin on a button with her daughter’s face and set out for whatever makeshift memorial had sprouted up. She’d pass the piles of flowers and stuffed animals and look for the photos of the lost. She felt a kinship with those whose loved ones’ lives ended like Jessi’s. When she looked into their eyes, she sensed the hopes and dreams that were snuffed out.

Often, those closest to the dead were hard to find, holing up as she once did to shut the world out. She would make her way through the community, looking for people to make introductions, or reach out directly through Facebook and phone calls.

“You don’t know me,” Phillips said when she made her way to Rhonda Hart after her daughter was killed at a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, “but I know what you’re going through.”

Hart’s 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was a Girl Scout through and through, who devoured books and was a model of politeness, with an occasional burst of sassiness sneaking through. When she was 3, Hart once nudged her out the door by saying, “Come on, princess.” She snapped back: “I’m not a princess, Mommy. I’m a race car.”

Kimberly loved her American Sign Language class and dreamed of being an interpreter. The last time she saw her mother, they signed “I love you” to one another.

Now Hart was in her darkest moment. She cried constantly. She couldn’t sleep. Her body hurt. Showering and changing her clothes had become optional. Nothing mattered.

On the other end of the phone was a woman who knew precisely how she felt.

“I kind of let my barriers down to talk to her,” Hart said. “And we just kind of bonded.”

Each place Phillips went, it repeated.

Always, there were vigils by candlelight and politicians with empty promises and first responders who’d seen too much. Always, there were reporters telling the same story that seemed to have been told a hundred times. Always, there was a cascade of grief.

“Every one is the same and every one is different,” Phillips said.

Some people Phillips met along the way stayed in touch for years; others dissolved into tears in her arms, never to be heard from again. Some spiraled to suicide. Some of their tragedies were seared into public consciousness; others receded into a jumble of places where something awful happened, but few seemed to remember exactly what.

Along the way, there were diversions. For months, Phillips sat in a Colorado courthouse while her daughter’s killer stood trial. She found herself in court again when she sued the seller of the guns used in the theater attack, but a law shielding gun sellers ensured it failed.

On the hook for the gun shop’s legal fees, the Phillipses lost their home.

But the journey continued. They made an RV their home and took to the road even more.

Sometimes, at the site of one tragedy, they’d cut their stay short to rush to another. Sometimes months passed between shootings. Always, they returned to the road.

People would ask, “How could you keep doing this?”

They would reply, “How could we not?”

As she pushed forward, Phillips’ hopes soared from time to time that major gun reform could happen. She went to Capitol Hill and the White House and the campaign trail to elevate the cause. There she was, beside a president or a congresswoman. There she was, again and again, not just frustrated but sickened by the country’s inability to confront the killings.

At each shooting site, she had nothing more on her agenda than reaching families of the dead and being a source of comfort and advice gleaned from her own experience. Often, though, those she met would reach out later, seeking to advocate for change the way she had.

Droves joined the cause, but the killings only continued and the political divide only widened.

Phillips didn’t consider it radical to believe weapons of war had no place on American streets. Her parents gave her a gun for her 10th birthday and she enjoyed bird hunting as a girl. She was a Texan, long aligned with Republican politics. Now, she found their intransigence on guns maddening.

“Innocent people and children are dying,” she said, “and people go, ‘Oh well, nothing we can do.’”

It became a source of pain for Phillips and those who joined her work.

Marc Orfanos received a call from Phillips within a day of his son Telemachus’ killing. The 27-year-old was one of 13 who were fatally shot at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, and he felt his cynicism and disgust grow with each shooting that followed. His son was a Navy veteran who was just beginning to recover from the trauma of surviving the shooting a year earlier that killed 60 people at a Las Vegas concert.

The loss Orfanos felt rippled to people he never met. A little boy down the street wrote him a letter saying that when he’d walk his dog at night, he felt safer when he’d see Telemachus outside. A customer at the Infiniti dealership where Telemachus worked told of how she texted back and forth with him about the Dodgers. Childhood teachers showed up, talking of his humor and how he seemed to find something in common with everyone he met.

As so many showered the family in compassion, though, others turned to vitriol.

The day after the shooting, Orfanos’ wife Susan gave a seething, voice-breaking TV interview in which she said, “I don’t want prayers, I don’t want thoughts, I want gun control.” It made the family a target and unleashed a torrent of hate. Callers dialed them at home claiming it was all a lie and their son wasn’t even dead. Letters blanketed the neighborhood saying the family was embroiled in a conspiracy to take away people’s guns. All of it came as the horrifying details of Telemachus’ death – on the floor of a bar, bleeding out from five bullet holes – tormented them.

Orfanos couldn’t find consolation in his son’s death bringing change, because it didn’t.

“One doesn’t get through it or over it or past it,” he said. “It never changes. And the reason it never changes is because there seems to be no concerted and universal effort to stop this.”

Phillips had no idea how far her trip would go or how long it would last. As it stretched on, she lost faith in politicians to do anything, and grew disenchanted with some gun reform groups, too. The only thing she could rely on was more shootings, more ripples of devastating grief.

Brandon Wolf met Phillips after he survived the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, keeping in touch and crossing paths as their advocacy overlapped. Two of his best friends were killed in the attack. The pain remained even as the years passed.

He was plagued with guilt over making it out alive; it took years to feel as if he deserved to be happy again. When joy returned, it was dampened by the absence of two men he considered brothers. He could be guarded and vigilant. He was plagued by PTSD and insomnia.

“It severs your soul in a way that is irreparable,” Wolf said. “You learn to find new joy. You learn to navigate the world in a different way. But it changes you forever.”

As years passed tending to the grief of others, Phillips felt her own heartbreak evolve.

She had climbed out of the depths of debilitating sadness, broke the habits of eating and drinking too much, returned to putting makeup on her face and found a reason to rise from bed.

One day, she made it through without breaking into tears and when she realized it, she cried. Another, a thought of Jessi sent her into a fit of laughter, which in turn spurred a wave of guilt.

Other scars remained: Her thinking was so disjointed and attentiveness so fractured that she couldn’t make it through a book for years. Filling out paperwork in a doctor’s office seemed insurmountable. Sleep remained fitful. The sight of a mother and daughter together was piercing.

“I have that hole in my heart,” she said. “I’m not complete anymore.”

Being on the road and meeting so many others like herself often felt like it helped. She had purpose and helping others brought some solace.

But each tragedy also took its toll. She lost count of the places she’d been. Her phone filled with numbers for people she met, but she could no longer keep all their stories straight.

Isla Vista. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. She’d try to come up with the sorrowful litany of her past decade and her mind would blank. Las Vegas. El Paso. Highland Park. Santa Barbara. Each of them came with blessings but also added to her grief. Virginia Beach. Colorado Springs. Another Aurora. She felt it all building, but pushed on. She was in Buffalo, where a racist took aim at supermarket shoppers, when she had to fly off to Uvalde, where little boys and girls were murdered and uniformed men stood by for a seeming eternity. She was more shaken than she had been in years. The weight of her journey became blatantly clear. The grief swallowed her. And, as quickly as it started 10 years earlier, her trip was over.

To the very end of her journey, Phillips never stopped telling those she met that they would find happiness again. She believed it to her core and needed them to believe it too.

Now, she had decided to put an end to a trip that came to define her.

But when your life is punctuated by the kind of tragedy she endured, it only has two parts. There is before and after.

After never rivals before. Everyone she met along the way affirmed it.

When Wheeler goes on vacation and a lighthouse appears, it’s impossible not to think of the lanky, wavy-haired teen with a sly smile that his son might have become before the Newtown gunman ended his life.

When Girl Scout cookie season comes, Hart avoids any place they might appear. The cold snap of a fresh-from-the-freezer Thin Mint, once sold by her daughter, now makes her sick to her stomach.

When Wolf’s birthday arrives, it doesn’t matter what revelry it brings, there will always be two missing faces. Food doesn’t taste as good. Songs don’t sound the same. A visit to a nightclub, once carefree, now has him on high alert.

And for Orfanos, the gruesomeness of his son’s death at the bar still permeates his thoughts. Life feels like a performance, an effort to fill time with distractions so as not to focus on the void that defines it.

“It’s been 1,676 days,” he said one day in June. “Maybe the sun has gone up and down 1,676 times, but it’s all just one continuous day for us … Every morning you wake up and you put one foot in front of the other and you just make it through.”

It turned out Phillips wasn’t wrong when she offered confident promises of finding happiness. It was that two things could at once be true.

She had come so far in the space of a decade and yet, in some ways, nothing had changed. For all the therapy sessions, all the personal growth, all the disciplined work to rise from the suffocating depths of sadness, her daughter still was gone. The pace of killings only intensified. Instead of tighter gun laws, some states loosened them.

Exhausted, disgusted and impoverished, the Phillipses came to a radical conclusion: The country they’d pledged their loyalty to and spent their entire lives in had betrayed them.

“We had our daughter taken. We lost everything we had. And we lost our country,” Phillips says.

They rented a house an hour south of Guadalajara, Mexico, in the lakeside town of Ajijic. They continue their advocacy, but since Uvalde, haven’t returned to the road to visit shooting sites.

She is 73 now. He is 79. They know this is their final chapter. They want it to be a happy one.

The distance has been good. When a shooting happens in the U.S., they don’t rush to the TV. They eat at restaurants and don’t worry a gunman might intrude. They walk carefree through a street market, where a lone guitarist croons and strawberries are perfectly stacked. When fireworks go off, they have no fear someone is firing a gun. In their yard, clementines and limes grow and plumerias rain from the trees. Fountains spout, hummingbirds and orioles dart and mountains rise in the background. They even have let Christmas return.

“We’re surrounded by beauty,” Phillips said, “and all in this moment is good.”

The next morning, though, the emotion rushed back. They were quietly sipping coffee on the patio when Sandy looked over at Lonnie and saw his eyes had welled with tears.

“I know, baby,” she said, and no one had to explain anything more.

Sometimes, Jessi visits in her dreams, usually appearing as a toddler. When Phillips awakes, she’ll squeeze her eyes closed and try and coax the vision to return. She begs for more.

“Let me feel her touch me,” she says. “Let me feel her hug me. Let me feel her kiss me on the cheek again. Let me hear her laugh again. Let me hear her high heels coming up the walkway.”

Let me, she wishes, be happy.