Perils of ‘land of if’ hit hard after shootings

This article was originally published in North County News.

The familiar chime announced the flashing icon at the bottom of my screen. I quickly double-clicked, launched Instant Messenger and read words that let my soul exhale.

“hey ms. becky, i am not sure if you have heard any of the news about VT, but i am just letting you know that i am alright”

Brian was safe!

I had just learned of the Virginia Tech shootings and feared Brian, my daughter’s boyfriend, could have been harmed. Amazingly, he was eating breakfast in the building next to the dorm while that madman began his rampage.

“most of the deaths were in the engineering building, and at 230 today, i have class in that building…”

His classroom, 206, was attacked in the massacre. If the gunman had waited five more hours, Brian would have been in the room.


That magical yet menacing word surely haunts the friends and families of the 33 senseless deaths. Reeling minds long for logic to piece together another story with a different ending.

Yet, in my experience, the “land of if” is a dangerous place, where recurring thoughts fixate us in our point of pain.

My brother, Forest, died in a water-skiing accident at the age of 17. The bright faces and shining souls of the Virginia Tech victims struck a nerve still raw in many ways, even after 30 years.

You do never, ever forget.

In his book, “Sit Down God, I’m Angry,” my father, Dr. R. F. Smith Jr., used both our family’s experience and his 40 years in the ministry to offer insight into life after tragic loss.

He divides this difficult journey into three periods: evening of death, the night of grief and the morning of duty.

During the evening of death, we must accept the reality of the loss. The more tragic and premature the deaths, the more intense the pain, and the more important the process of facing realities, he contends.

Loss is real. Make no pretense that you do not hurt, he suggests. What is, is. We cannot rewrite history. We cannot bring back our loved ones. The “land of if” prevents our acceptance of reality.

It’s true, we can learn from the “land of if.” It is an excellent tool for analysis. Yet at the emotional level, its quagmire of questions prevents healing.

The “land of if” creates circular thinking and fragile living while promoting an anger and helplessness that can lead to desperation. It gives randomness a role in our lives that can keep us from moving forward into the necessary night of grief.

Granted, those safe may experience a new-found appreciation of their fortune. Yet some experience another “land of if” casualty — survivor guilt.

The “land of if” warps time. As we struggle to embrace our reality, as victim or survivor, time becomes confused. Minutes seem like hours or days seem like minutes when we live each day three ways — what was, what is and what would have been.

But let’s admit it: The “land of if” is here to stay. As humans, our powers of reasoning and empathy are fueled by our capacity to analyze.

So give the “land of if” some real estate in your mind. Wander there to reflect or grieve. But fence it in. Keep a gate on it. Know it is a dangerous place to set up permanent residence. As life goes on, you will visit it less frequently, but more reverently.

And just when you think you have it mastered, bright faces and shining souls send you reeling back into the pit of that tumultuous territory.

You cry. You remember. You revel in the fond memories and even allow a flash of anger to seep in at the injustice of it all.

Then you shut that gate and face the warmth and love of family and friends in the land of “what still is.”