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Hailey and Maximus Blunk at the funeral for their father, a victim of the Aurora theater shooting.

In Memoriam

The Impossible Grief of Children Who Lose a Parent in a Mass Shooting

Hailey and Maximus Blunk belong to a growing group of American kids enduring what one childhood trauma expert calls a "particularly difficult struggle."

Hailey Blunk couldn’t wait to see her dad. It was the middle of July 2012, and the 4-year-old girl had spent the week making welcome home signs in preparation for Saturday morning, when her father was coming to visit. Jonathan Blunk, a Navy veteran, had been working odd jobs in Aurora, Colorado, and preparing to join the Army reserves. His wife, Chantel, lived with their two children in Reno, Nevada. While her parents worked out their relationship, Hailey and her younger brother got to see their father every few months.

By Friday night, Hailey had picked out the dress she would wear to the airport: white with red and pink flowers, spaghetti straps, and a lace ribbon sash. She was playing with her brother and didn’t notice when several FBI agents dressed in plainclothes pulled up in front of the house. The men had come to give Chantel the news in person. The previous evening, Jonathan, 26, had decided to catch a late-night showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” About 30 minutes into the film, a man armed opened fire in the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. Jonathan was among the dead.

Hailey (right) and her younger brother Maximus in an undated photo with their father, Jonathan Blunk.

The next morning, airport day, Chantel explained to Hailey and 2-year-old Maximus that their father wasn’t coming home. At first, they reacted with tears. About an hour later, they asked her, “Are we going to go to the airport? What time is Daddy coming?”

Hailey and Maximus are part of a small but growing group of American children whose parents have been killed in mass shootings. In November, a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three people, each of them a parent of two young children. Days later, a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, left at least 13 children and adolescents without a mother or a father. Among them was Bennetta Bet-Badal’s teenage daughter, who managed to compose herself long enough to sing “Silver Bells,” her mom’s favorite carol, at the funeral service on December 14. That same week, at the funeral for Aurora Godoy, her 2-year-old son, Alexander, watched the service from his father’s arms, a look of bewilderment on his face. 

The recent shootings, like others before them, have altered the lives of children of all ages, especially the very young. “It’s hard enough for adults to grasp the concept of death, let alone sudden death,” says Steven Marans. “But the very nature of children’s thinking and the nature of their fantasies make it a particularly difficult struggle.” Marans is a psychiatry professor in the Yale Child Study Center, where he co-developed a therapy intervention that treats post-traumatic disorders (PTSD) in children. When a child loses a parent suddenly, he says, “the fact that there is no anticipation or preparation whatsoever adds another layer of magnitude of pain and suffering.”

In the days immediately following the shooting in Aurora, Hailey and Maximus continued to ask when their father would be coming home. Each time, Chantel, now a widow and single mother at 26, would again try to explain. Before flying to Colorado to retrieve her husband’s body, she told the kids she was going to bring their father home, but that he would be different. His body would be in a box, but his spirit had gone to live in the sky. 

Over the next few weeks, she arranged visits at the mortuary so the kids could see Jonathan’s body. On their first visit, Hailey, a genuine daddy’s girl, saw what looked like her father sleeping on a table, a white sheet pulled up to his collarbone. “She put her hand on him and she was shaking him and telling him to wake up,” Chantel recalls. “She started crying, ‘Wake up, wake up Daddy!’” Whenever Hailey cried, Maximus would begin to cry, too.

For kids under the age of six or seven, the permanency of death is still an elusive concept, says Melissa Brymer, who directs the terrorism and disaster program at UCLA’s National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. In the aftermath of losing a parent, adults “might have to have the conversation with the child a couple of times,” she says. “When we say that that person isn’t coming back, there’s still that wish of, ‘Oh, are they going to be here for dinner? Are they coming back for breakfast?’”

Each time Hailey and her brother visited the mortuary, they grew less shocked at the sight of their father lying there, not moving but not sleeping, as they tried to wrap their minds around what their mom was saying: Now Daddy is in heaven, now he’s their angel. They would touch his chest and face, say, “I love you, I miss you.” The day of the funeral, Hailey managed to hold it together — until they shut the casket. “She just lost her mind,” her godfather, Kyle Dawson, recalls. Her screams could be heard throughout the procession.

Hailey feared that if her mother left her sight, she might die. When Chantel assured her, “Mommy’s just going to school,” Hailey would counter, “Well, Daddy was just at a movie.”

The burial marked the beginning of a painful, meandering recovery process for Chantel and her kids. After losing a parent, says Brymer, children may become preoccupied with their safety or the safety of their caregivers, and this concern makes them clingy. In Hailey’s case, she developed separation anxiety. Chantel, then working a day job and attending school at night, often missed class because Hailey was afraid that if her mother left her sight, she might die. Reasoning didn’t help. When Chantel assured her, “Mommy’s just going to school,” Hailey would counter, “Well, Daddy was just at a movie.” One day, while they were driving in the car and singing along to country radio, Hailey suddenly started to gasp for air. “She would lock up and forget how to breathe,” Chantel recalls. Because of her anxiety, Hailey missed her first year of kindergarten.

Before the shooting, Hailey and Maximus would often sleep beside their mother, but afterward they would awake in panic if Chantel slipped away to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Child trauma experts say kids coping with traumatic grief sometimes revert to an earlier developmental level. “They were sleeping well on their own, and now they need to sleep with you at night. They might have been potty-trained, and now they’re having accidents,” says Brymer. Children may also become sullen, withdrawn, angry, or oppositional, adds Marans, the Yale professor. They might get headaches or stomach aches, pick fights, stop eating, act out imaginary shooting scenes, or, like Hailey did, suffer terrible nightmares. The stress can become overwhelming, as it did for Cassidy Stay, who lost her entire family to an execution-style shooting in 2014. To help her cope, she received a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy last Christmas. Because of its ability to detect stress hormones, the breed has been used to help returning combat veterans deal with PTSD.

To guide her children through the aftermath of their father’s death, Chantel says she’s taken an approach of honesty and understanding. Whenever they have questions about their dad, she tries to answer truthfully; whenever they fly into a rage because they’re unable to see him, she lets them be mad. “We talk about it,” she says. “I say, ‘Express your feelings, understand what you’re feeling. If you’re angry, okay, what does that anger feel like?’” For months after Jonathan’s death, she kept his cell phone on and charged so the kids could hear his voice on the voicemail. They left messages for him until the mailbox was full. 

It’s been three and a half years since Jonathan Blunk died. Looking ahead, Chantel, who’s now estranged from Jonathan’s family, worries about her kids struggling with depression, anxiety, and anger. Hailey, now eight, is in the second grade. Chantel says her anxiety issues have mostly disappeared, though she still has bad days. Maximus, meanwhile, is now five, old enough to understand that his dad is gone, but too young to have memories of him. When he feels sad about it, his mother and sister tell him stories and show him photos, creating a version of his dad that he can hold onto.

[Photo: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post]