Callie Schweitzer is the deputy publisher of Talking Points Memo. She is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and People magazine. Follow her at @cschweitz.
I had a tight feeling in my chest on Friday. I spent the day mining for details about the victims of the Aurora shooting, and it was the kind of pain that felt so awful and yet so valuable.
I wanted to know everything: Who they were, what they were like, who they left behind. What set this event apart from other similarly awful events in U.S. history was that I could learn all of those details through Facebook and Twitter.
Through social media we have the ability to celebrate the lives of those like 24-year-old Jessica Redfield — who has largely become the face of this tragic day — in a way that wasn’t possible before.
I spent much of Friday poring over Jessica’s tweets and couldn’t help thinking how well we’d get along. She was an aspiring journalist with an amazing sense of humor. Her comebacks. Her use of capital letters and exclamation marks to show excitement. Her determination. She had a self-awareness and confidence that many people spend entire lives trying to cultivate.
Put simply, she was fabulous. The kind of fabulous you want to surround yourself with. The kind of fabulous you know is going somewhere in life.
I say all of this, and yet, we’ve never met, and we never will.
But that’s how social media has changed the “human” aspect of tragedies like the Aurora shooting. It’s a whole new level of connection. We can get to know, remember, and celebrate the lives of people we don’t know. That’s true power, and Jessica recognized that.
Three days before she was killed, Jessica tweeted:
— Jessica Redfield (@JessicaRedfield) July 17, 2012
In a gut-wrenching twist of fate, that tweet was particularly meaningful because she’d been at the Toronto Eaton Centre shooting one month earlier and escaped. Redfield, who was also known as Jessica Ghawi, reflected on this in a post:
“I can’t get this odd feeling out of my chest. This empty, almost sickening feeling won’t go away. I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Center in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm‘s way. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting.
What started off as a trip to the mall to get sushi and shop, ended up as a day that has forever changed my life. I was on a mission to eat sushi that day, and when I’m on a mission, nothing will deter me.”
Jessica poignantly wrote that after the Toronto shooting she stood around the mall, unsure of why. “Shock? Curiosity? Human nature? Who knows.”
I wonder the same thing about why I can’t get enough of her life and turn away from this horrific tragedy. “Shock? Curiosity? Human nature? Who knows.”
Jessica saw things we spend our lives hoping to protect ourselves and our children from:
“There was no blood flowing from the wounds, I could only see the holes. Numerous gaping holes, as if his skin was putty and someone stuck their finger in it. Except these wounds were caused by bullets. Bullets shot out of hatred.”
And in some awful wrong-place-wrong-time way, she saw these things twice. But oh how wise she was, and how much she allowed herself to learn from the tragedy.
“I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.
I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.
I feel like I am overreacting about what I experienced. But I can’t help but be thankful for whatever caused me to make the choices that I made that day. My mind keeps replaying what I saw over in my head. I hope the victims make a full recovery. I wish I could shake this odd feeling from my chest. The feeling that’s reminding me how blessed I am. The same feeling that made me leave the Eaton Center. The feeling that may have potentially saved my life.”
Rereading Jessica’s tweets, I feel so close to her. Yes, it’s the “Twitter version” of her. But from all I’ve read about Jessica, it seems the “Twitter version” of her was very much a reflection of her true self. Jessica was unashamed of who she was: open about her flaws, her fears, her fascinations.
In hindsight, one of the most painful tweets came on Wednesday night at 9:59 p.m. — the night before she would have left to see “The Dark Knight Rises.” She tweeted, “How do people know where they want to be in 14 years?! This is absurd to me! I don’t even know where I want to be in the morning!!”
Two mornings later, Jessica was dead.
We can retrace her steps, her thoughts, the moments leading up to her decision to see the movie: “Never thought I’d have to coerce a guy into seeing the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises with me.”
But nothing will change that what happened was horrific. Or that Jessica is just one of the twelve lives that were stolen from us.
I keep wondering why I can’t stop enveloping myself in the digital trail of her life. When I first discovered Jessica’s account on Friday morning, she had more than 6,000 followers. As I write this, she has four times as many. I am touched by the honor we pay in re-tweeting, favoriting, and following those who will never tweet again. It’s a tribute we offer to people who, in chronicling their life so publicly, gave us so much to remember them by.
On Saturday morning, Miami Marlins player Logan Morrison tweeted:
— Logan Morrison (@LoMoMarlins) July 21, 2012
So with that, I vow to add #RIPJessica to as many tweets as I can, and I vow to live a life where I take nothing for granted, including tomorrow. Jessica taught me that when everything is unfair, unjust, and unexplainable, and the world seems to be slipping through our fingers, all we can do is try to hold on.