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The evolving grief of Uvalde residents


We're going to return to Uvalde, Texas, now, where it's been almost a month since a gunman entered Robb Elementary School and killed 19 fourth grade students and two teachers. As time has passed, the world's attention has shifted elsewhere. Uvalde has quieted down, and its residents have been left with lingering questions about what happened. They've been left with their grief and with the task of getting on with their lives. It's a big task that is starting to sink in for people.

I was back in Uvalde a few days ago as the funerals for the victims were finally wrapping up. Most of the children were buried at a small cemetery near the edge of town in the back section, the newest section.

You look out across this section of the cemetery, and there are just fresh mounds of dirt everywhere. There's Jacklyn Cazares's grave. And then just a short walk away, Jose Flores and Alithia Ramirez. I can see Makenna Elrod's grave from here. Annabell Rodriguez and Xavier Lopez, who were sweethearts, were buried right next to each other. There's a huge, massive mound of flowers covering their graves, so you can't tell that there are two, but there are two here.

Both of the teachers killed are buried at this cemetery, too. At Eva Mireles's grave, I met her sisters, Sandra Sanders and Maggie Mireles Thomas. It was just the morning after they'd buried Eva here, but Maggie said they had to come back.

Why did you come here today? You were here yesterday.

MAGGIE MIRELES THOMAS: I don't want to leave her here. Just like my mom said, you know, my sister's probably scared to be alone. So we just don't want to leave her alone.

FLORIDO: Is that how your mom feels?

THOMAS: Yes. My mom yesterday, I will never forget her, you know, screaming in devastation, just saying, you know, my baby, my baby. You know, she's scared to be alone. She's scared to be alone. And, you know, that's why we're here.

FLORIDO: Maggie and her sister Sandra are still struggling to accept what happened. Sandra looked out across the cemetery at all the fresh graves of her sister's students.

SANDRA SANDERS: It's almost like the aftermath of a war zone. You look around. We're in this little beautiful town, and then you look at and it's like, did we have a war? Did we send our children to war and this is what has happened?

FLORIDO: Like so many surviving family members and like so much of this town, the Mireles sisters are trying to navigate their grief and figure out where their lives go from here. Sandra said it feels like they're grasping for something they just can't get a hold of.

SANDERS: I'm lost as to what to do now. I'm also a teacher. Should I quit my job and move down here to take care of my mom? Like, is - I just feel like one person has devastated so many single individuals on a level that is beyond my scope of comprehension.

FLORIDO: She said comprehension has been coming slowly as the initial shock has worn off and as Uvalde has quieted down. The calm has given the sisters space to think. And what they've decided is that they won't let the memory of what happened to their sister and her co-teacher, Irma Garcia, and the 19 students just fade away. They want to find purpose from the tragedy.

SANDERS: Why did she die? What was it for? What do I need to do? Like, me, personally, I feel like I need to do something on a large scale. And mind you, I have no idea what that is yet.

FLORIDO: Maggie said they're starting to think it through.

THOMAS: We don't know where to begin, but wherever this leads us, we'll be fighting for my sister and for Ms. Irma and all the kids so they could remember them and never forget what happened because it could have been prevented.

FLORIDO: This new resolve, she said, is doing a lot to help the sisters cope. It's not only the families of the victims, though, who are grasping for closure. Uvalde is such a small town that almost everyone was close to the tragedy in some way. Gina Garza works at the Uvalde Memorial Hospital. She and I first spoke two days after the shooting when she brought flowers to the memorial outside Robb Elementary. She told me then about what it was like to try to help the families who had come into the hospital in desperate search of their children.

GINA GARZA: You have to be able to find them. This is exactly what they were wearing. And they would show me a picture from that day.

FLORIDO: Garza tried for hours to find their kids, calling hospitals as far away as San Antonio but finding none of them. It wasn't until she got home that night and went online that she realized why. Pictures of the victims, pictures their families had shown her at the hospital just hours earlier, were being shared online.

GARZA: And I just kept scrolling through Facebook. And I was finding them. And that hurts so bad. (Crying) I felt so bad because I couldn't get them what they wanted.

FLORIDO: About three weeks after that conversation, I visited Gina Garza again at her mother's house, and she said a sense of hopelessness had overcome her and many people in town.

GARZA: I think that people are just trying to figure out how to move forward without their children, and that makes people angry. I think there's a lot of hurting, angry people right now because there's still a lot of unanswered questions.

FLORIDO: Garza has been trying to shake these feelings by volunteering and by delivering care packages to the families of the victims. She knows many of them personally. But she says one of the most healing experiences she's had since the tragedy was at the funeral services for 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez. Her family was one of the ones that Garza helped the day of the shooting as they searched for Maite at the hospital. When Garza went to the mortuary to pay her respects, she spotted one of those relatives.

GARZA: And her eyes just lit up. She jumped out of where she was sitting and came around the pew. And she just hugged me, and she held me. And she said, I am so glad you came. And when I left, I just - I didn't feel the anxiety that I was feeling before. And somehow I felt better.

FLORIDO: Uvalde has always been a town where people look out for each other. And Garza that thinks it's this human connection that's going to help the whole town feel better little by little.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.