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People grieve near the spot where the bodies of two murdered boys were discovered on June 21, 2010, in Chicago's south side.

City Limits

What It Sounds Like When a Family Learns Their 7-Year-Old Is Dead From a Gunshot

“It’s really just ... something you shouldn’t have to hear.”

On Sunday, March 20, a neighbor watched Devon Lofton pedal his red bicycle up to his home on South Aberdeen Street in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. A few hours later, inside the house where he lived with his mother, grandmother, and several siblings, the 7-year-old boy shot himself with a weapon he may have mistaken for a toy. He was pronounced dead less than an hour later at a nearby children’s hospital. Police think the gun may have been brought into the house by Lofton’s 10-year-old brother.  

Photos taken that afternoon depict a familiar scene: police officers in bulletproof vests jotting down notes in the front yard; two anxious women in jogging gear approaching the house; a pair of children on bikes, peering over a horizon of yellow crime tape. But a video taken by Chicago Tribune reporter Tony Briscoe documents a different sensation: the heart-rending sounds of Lofton’s family members realizing what’s happened. Only 20 seconds long, it’s a soundbite of chaos giving way to realization giving way to raw anguish.

As several people duck under the police tape and move toward the house, their tearful pleading glances off the stern replies of two officers, who refuse to let them go farther. “You gotta go back. Please stand back. I’m asking you nicely,” says one officer as he intercepts a man in low-slung jeans and a backwards cap. The man fiddles with a handful of silver keys, his voice inaudible; he seems to be crying. “I know you’re concerned, I know you’re concerned,” responds the officer.

On the other side of the street, a second officer holds up one hand, then two, as a woman flanked by two younger people begs to go past. Her imploring cries rise above the murmur. “No … Please …”

“We wanna be respectful,” says the officer, pleading himself. “Please. Please.”

At the 16 second-mark, the woman turns around and retreats.

“Oh my god,” she bellows. She is in pain, her face briefly illuminated by the fading afternoon sun. Seconds later, her cry is followed by the low, shuddering sob of a broken man.

There are songs you can’t shake. And then there are noises that haunt. They form the soundtracks of pock-marked neighborhoods, and follow cops and paramedics and crime reporters home. There’s the sound a mother makes when she learns her child has died, for instance: “It’s a wail and a cry and it’s pain and anger and confusion and disbelief,” Jonathan Bullington, reporter for The Times Picayune|, told The Trace last year. “I don’t care how many movies you watch, how great the actors are, they will never get it right. It’s just a sound … It’s tough to get out of your head.”

Peter Nickeas, a Chicago Tribune reporter, tries to convey the sounds in his articles, but hearing a private moment made so public makes it challenging. “When somebody is flailing, and pounding the pavement, and they’re screaming and shrieking, I don’t know what word I would use to describe it,” he says. “It’s really just deeply unsettling — something you shouldn’t have to hear.”

To supplement his reporting, Nickeas has made a habit of posting videos on Instagram. In one, he captures a chorus of diesel-engine rumbles and police-scanner bleats joined by the shrill yell of a witness as paramedics load a woman’s body into an ambulance. At another, he hears the distressed din of relatives banging from inside a police wagon, where they were placed for trying to breach the crime scene.

Listen long enough and you will record another moment in the aftermath of a shooting, one whose power is the inverse of its decibel count. Amid the crescendos of fury and loss, sometimes all you hear is the eerie quiet of family members being submerged in grief.

[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]