In the Navy Yard Tragedy, Don't Forget the Families

PHOTO: Navy Yard Shooting Victims VigilJ. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
A small group holds a candle light vigil on Freedom Plaza to remember the victims of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Sept. 16, 2013, in Washington.

This was supposed to be another week of business as usual in Washington. Another round of partisan bickering over fiscal issues while the White House put the finishing touches on a deal to avoid war in Syria.

And the five-year anniversary of the financial meltdown had the chattering class looking both back and forward to the next government-sponsored crisis.

Yet Monday morning, Sept. 16, became another date notched into our collective memory, not because of another showdown on Capitol Hill or a turn of political fortune. On a Monday morning at the D.C. Navy Yard, 13 families had their lives changed forever -- a phone call saying that a loved one wasn't coming home.

My family and I have learned what that call is like, and how it changes everything after it.

My sister-in-law, Lindsay Ferrill, was my wife's best friend and a frequent presence in our house, even from her home in the suburbs outside Houston. An aspiring professional baker and part-time student, she had taken some hard knocks in the few years since I met and married her sister, but the unexpected arrival of her daughter, Peyton, had changed her course for the better.

Most importantly, Lindsay was truly happy: A new boyfriend, success in her cake business and a planned move to Tulsa, Okla., had put the pieces in place for what we all expected to be a bright and happy future.

It was early afternoon April 25, 2012, and I was headed to Capitol Hill to have lunch with my wife, Erica, who worked in the Senate. Unexpectedly, Erica began calling me over and over again, typically a sign of trouble. I finally answered and heard the worst -- Lindsay had texted earlier that morning to say an ex-boyfriend had her and Peyton -- and he also had a gun.

What's remarkable about living out a senseless tragedy is the way in which time seems to slow to a crawl. As news broke Monday about the shootings in southeast Washington, my thoughts were with the affected families and the excruciating wait they were about to endure -- initial alarm moving into fear, panic, shock and, eventually, grief.

Sitting in the Great Hall of Union Station just off the Hill, Erica and I tried to stay upbeat and stared at our phones awaiting news. It was only a few minutes later we learned that while Peyton was safe, two families would never be the same.

Lindsay and her ex-boyfriend were both gone.

Instead of falling into familiar talking points, both sides should promise to remember the victims as people and not a new set of evidence.

It's a natural part of the human condition to demand answers in the face of tragedy. Monday's events have already restarted a familiar yet passionate debate around the country as we try to make sense of a senseless act. Ironically, however, little of this discussion is likely to center around those most affected.

In 13 homes around the country, family and friends will look over old photos and struggle to get their hearts and minds around the fact their loved one is gone in the same way my family did, and still does.

To the extent that discussing what caused the tragedy at the Navy Yard can help us avoid other families' losing loved ones, we should have a passionate and thorough debate. But instead of falling into familiar talking points, both sides should promise to remember the victims as people and not a new set of evidence for one side or the other.

Perhaps this act, meant for evil, can be used as a catalyst for change in a town badly in need of it.

As we look to help my wife's parents raise our niece and deal with the longer-term implications of Lindsay's smiling face no longer being there to greet us on each visit to Houston, it's important to note that none of us harbor any feelings of hate for the person involved or his family. Forgiveness is an effective salve for even the deepest wound.

My hope for the victims' families in the Navy Yard shooting is that they are able to walk the road ahead with memories of those they lost and that the D.C. community, now reeling from a heinous crime, can rally together and bring positive change as a result of the senseless tragedy this week.

Joe Brettell is a public relations consultant and former Capitol Hill aide. On twitter @joebrettell

Opinions expressed in this piece are not endorsed by ABC News.