Steve Zipper visits a makeshift memorial in Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims on Feb. 17, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people were killed in the mass shooting. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

I see the headline “What Parents Really Want for Valentine’s Day” and feel my heart lurch. I don’t need to read a witty list of themed gifts or funny memes; the events of Valentine’s Day 2018 remind me exactly what it is that parents want on this day.

I remember getting up early to make my daughter lunch that morning, cutting her peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the shape of a heart. A sweet note got tucked in with the sandwich, because it was Valentine's Day and parents of teenagers use any excuse to get mushy. (Our kids are well past presenting us with red construction paper hearts glued to lacy cutouts, though we still have a box full of such treasures somewhere.)

I handed her the bag and called out, “Have a great day, honey!” She waved and left, as the first high school bell rings much too early.

My teenager texted me at lunch and shared that my surprise had not gone as planned. She and her friends got takeout, so the heart-shaped sandwich was consumed by a classmate. Apparently he enjoyed the note. I replied with an eye roll emoji and told her to get to class.

The news alerts started later that afternoon. They reported that a young man had shown up at his former high school, on Valentine’s Day, for the sole purpose of taking lives. Despite a troubled history, he legally acquired an AR-15 military-style rifle, which he used to massacre 14 students and three staff members.

Parkland, Fla., was added to the too-long list of school shootings: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and many more. I pictured the families who sent their children off to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with heart-shaped sandwiches and valentines and eye-rolling love for their teens; I understood this could be any of us. We hugged our children tightly when they got home from school and somberly watched the news together.

I took my grief and tried to become even more informed and active on gun violence prevention. I learned that gun violence extends far beyond school shootings; it’s now the second leading cause of death for America’s children, according to an August 2018 report by Everytown for Gun Safety. Using Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, Everytown reports that more than 2,700 children and teens are shot and killed and nearly 14,500 are shot and injured every year – that’s an average of 47 American children and teens shot every day. The gun violence epidemic disproportionately affects black children and teens, who are four times more likely than white children and teens to be killed with guns.

I’ve learned that the violent death of a child sends waves through a community, creating ripples of grief and stress for parents and siblings, relatives and neighbors, teachers and classmates.

I’ve come to understand that a parent who has lost a child to gun suicide or homicide holds on to this loss like the construction paper hearts I’ve tucked away in a box, except they carry theirs everywhere.

There’s also this: Some grieving parents dedicate themselves to gun violence prevention to honor the too-brief lives of their children, and to prevent such loss from happening to other people’s children.

Teens and children are also speaking out. In the year since the school shooting, Parkland teens also said “no more,” to childhood gun deaths. They’ve connected with other affected communities to advocate for change. Close to home, they’ve inspired my own teen’s high school to take action and honor lives lost.

I am in awe of the thousands of volunteers, young and old, who show up at information sessions, hearings and rallies. Together we are buoyed by a growing national call for reasonable gun violence prevention solutions: things like safe storage education, better background check systems, red flag laws, and funding research and evidence-based solutions.

This Valentine’s Day my teenager and her friends aren’t focused on lunch plans; instead they’re putting up a T-shirt display that memorializes teens killed by gun violence.

As for me, I’ll pack my daughter a heart-shaped sandwich and a note before she leaves. Then I’ll reach out to my congressman to ask for his support of H.R. 8, which requires background checks on all gun sales.

So, what does every parent want for Valentine’s Day?

The same thing we want every day of the year: for our children to be safe in their schools and homes and neighborhoods.

Kristin O’Keefe is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md. You can find more of her work at KristinOKeefe.com.

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More reading:

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