‘Let’s go get our kids!’ We didn’t have a plan. One by one, they entered the room.’: Woman survives mass shooting, ‘deadliest’ wildfire, adopts all of her nieces, nephews in wake of both of her siblings’ deaths

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“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked how I am able to get out of bed every morning. I would like to say it all started with a DNA test, a Mother’s Day gift. But it really started with the reason I took the test in the first place.

Ten years prior, my brother was murdered. That was, and still is, the hardest period of my life. He was walking on the beach with his best friend and was attacked by three men. He died instantly when a violent punch extended his neck. You think about your grandparents dying, you think about your parents dying even. But you never think about your sibling dying. It killed my soul telling people my younger brother was lost to murder.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

I couldn’t see how I would ever get through it. It was the first time I felt genuine shock. That fuzzy-headed melancholy where you feel completely outside your body. Unfortunately, that would become a familiar feeling.

I didn’t just grieve and find my way back to life. My brother had three perpetrators, which meant years of litigation, separate hearings, motions, preliminary hearings, arraignments. It was years of meeting face-to-face with the men who beat my brother to death. I saw them on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. I fought hard though.

I enrolled in a local college and received my associate’s degree. I took every criminal justice course I could take. I wanted to understand every step of this process. I am proud of what I did to fight for my brother, although justice never came.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

My brother had found the love of his life. Just 9 days before his passing, he was trying to conceive. One of the hardest parts of his death was dealing with the reality I would never get to be an aunt. My desire to be one is what pushed me to take the 23andMe DNA test.

I never knew who my father was. My mother had me at 19 and didn’t remember his name. My whole life, it was just my mother, my brother, and I. When I took the test, I wasn’t looking for anyone but potential nieces and nephews. I wanted that in my life.

Within hours, and lots of research, I found my biological dad, his daughter, and her four children. I was finally going to be an aunt! I drove a few hours out to meet my dad and extended family. They were nothing but welcoming.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

My sister, however, had some issues. She was a homeless addict that had lost custody of her kids. I paid for her trip to Reno, where our father lived. In September of 2017, my sister walked into my hotel room. We both cried. If I had randomly seen her walking on the street one day, I would have known she was my sister. We loved each other instantly.

For three wonderful weeks, I got to know my sister better. She had the most amazing heart but was a traumatized soul with a rough childhood. She had never overcome the obstacles in her path, but she wanted to be better. She wanted to get her kids back, so I did what no one else would do. I took her home with me.

I wanted to meet my nieces and nephews. I learned all about them, their names, their likes, their dislikes. I couldn’t wait to meet them. But, suddenly, my sister left without a trace. She couldn’t get clean.

That weekend, me and my husband were headed to Las Vegas for our annual trip, to yes, the Route 91 Country concert. Singing and dancing along with Jason Aldean, we heard the pops start. I looked at my husband; he told me it was fireworks.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

I looked up in the sky and saw white confetti, which made the fireworks idea more plausible. I now know the confetti was the result of bullets shredding the white canopy behind us.

Everyone went down. I curled up next to my husband on the grass and told him I was scared. He told me not to worry, that it was just fireworks. I looked over his shoulder and saw a girl with a gunshot wound in her head. Her lifeless body was propped up against a man’s legs, as if she had fallen in front of him. I looked to my right and another girl was being given CPR.

Shock took over. My husband pulled me up. It was time to go. He grabbed my hand. Everything fell out of my purse and I could feel him yanking on my arm as I reached down to grab my wallet. We ran about 5 feet until my husband stopped short. A girl lay in front of us. Dying, dead, I didn’t know. The bullets started again.

He laid next to her on one side; I laid on the other. We laid with her on the field through all of the reloading, shooting, reloading, shooting. I just wanted it to stop. I kept saying to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I have kids. I shouldn’t be here, I have kids.’ I looked out across the field and there was no more crowd. There was nothing but bodies. We were the only targets left. Every time the shots restarted, I braced myself to be shot. I waited for the bullets to enter my body. Then it stopped.

We spent the rest of that night carrying people out, putting people into cars, and sending them to the emergency room. Most of them were already dead. Somehow, hours later, we got back to our hotel. I sat on the bathroom floor for an hour, staring at my bloodstained hands and clothes, trying to process what had just happened to us. We drove home the next day.

A week later, the survivors planned a moment of silence at 10:04pm. I went outside and looked up at the stars. Suddenly, I began to smell smoke and noticed ash take the sky. I woke my husband up. Our town was on fire. I had just survived the worst mass shooting in American History, and we were about to experience California’s deadliest wildfire.

My husband sprang into action. He headed to the store, brought us extra supplies, and filled his truck with cases of water and candy bars. He drove around until 6 a.m. handing these out to people fleeing their homes. I remember sitting on my porch, watching my normally quiet street brimming with stop-and-go traffic. Once again, I was watching people run for their lives. I felt the fear crawling back up inside me.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

The fire didn’t get us. Our home survived. My mother and grandmother’s home survived too. Shortly after, my grandmother got sick. She died on January 4, 2018. I was sure by then the worst was behind me. I remember going to my therapist and telling him that I didn’t want my PTSD. I wanted PTG, Post-traumatic Growth. He laughed at my tenacity.

On February 7, 2018, I received a call from my uncle. His voicemail told me to call him. He broke the news that my newfound sister and her husband had gotten into a car accident three days prior. They both died. I asked where the kids were, but he didn’t know. I called the sheriff and they referred me over to CPS. I called them, but they had no idea my sister and her kids even existed.

I went on Facebook and contacted every family member of my sister’s husband I could find. I was determined to find them. I called my husband, worried about what he would say. I wanted my nieces and nephews. He responded, ‘Go get our kids.’ So I did.

I found them at their father’s 28-year-old brother’s house. He wasn’t happy to see me. ‘You’re not taking the children,’ he told me. Over the next several weeks, and after many conversations with that brother, I knew in my heart the kids should not be with him. He was not ready to raise them. He did not have the resources, or the mental and emotional capacity to handle it. So I got an attorney and filed for guardianship. On March 5, 2018, the very day of my sister’s birthday, I got the call that we had been given custody. My husband and I headed north to get our kids.

We had no idea what we were getting into. We had never even met the children. The sherrif’s department told us to pick up the kids from school the following day, so we got a hotel room and waited until morning. I was so nervous. My husband was in tears, my mouth was dry. My palms were sweating and my blood sugar dropped, so I became shaky.

We waited in the school office for the kids to arrive. I didn’t know what I was going to say. I didn’t have a plan. It all happened so quickly. One by one, they entered the room. Jesse was first. He looked so sad. His head was down and his clothes were disheveled. He was hurting and I could see it. Next came Kristina, so quiet and scared. She reminded me of a small, scared, trapped little animal. Baili was next, and that girl can light up a room when she walks in. She quickly walked to her younger siblings who had gathered around the chair next to me.

I sat there quietly, although inside I was screaming, ‘I am your aunt!’ I wanted to grab them all and hug them. We waited for Alex, the oldest, to be brought in from the middle school down the street. The kids talked and I could tell the sheriff in the room made them nervous. I could tell it was not the first time a sheriff took them out of their home.

When Alex arrived, in pajamas and a hood over his head, the principal took us all into his office. I could see the confusion on all of their faces. I could feel the hurt inside their little bodies. I knew at that moment my suspicions were right. They needed to be with me. ‘My name is Jennifer and your mom was my sister, which makes me your aunt,’ I said. ‘This is my husband Justin, and he is your uncle. I am so sorry for what happened to your parents.’ I explained to them that when these things happen, a judge decides where children should go. ‘The judge decided you should come live with us.’

I watched Alex’s face crumble under his hoodie, followed by Jesse, and then Kristina. Baili, however, in her very Baili way, had a lollipop in her mouth and looked at me. She smiled and said, ‘Whatever. I like lollipops.’ Her smile was absolutely beautiful.

We kept talking and somehow scary movies became the topic. They started getting excited and telling me all of their favorites. I told them how brave they were, and that I was such a scaredy-cat when it came to scary movies. I glanced over at the principal and the sheriff. They were smiling and knew it was all going to be okay.

We got into the car and headed home. In just those five hours, I learned their uncle had been abusing them. I remember hearing numerous comments along the way. ‘This feels like a real family.’ ‘I feel like I just left hell for heaven.’ ‘I can’t wait to meet your kids.’ ‘I knew we were going to be rescued!’ My husband and I’s hearts were so full.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

In two days from now, my kids will have been with me for a year. They have all graduated from therapy and are doing well. Most of our issues are just regular kid issues, and I have loved seeing them blossom since that first meeting.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

Since that time, we have received several gifts from Ancestry and 23andMe testing. In October of this year, we returned to Las Vegas for the one-year reunion. The night after, on our anniversary, I heard my husband on the phone. When he got off he shouted, ‘You will never believe what is happening!’ My husband found out he had a sister he never knew about. His mother passed 20 years prior and, before his birth, had put a baby up for adoption. My sister-in-law now works with my husband and they have such an undeniable, wonderful bond. I really don’t know he has lived without her all these years.

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

This past week, after logging back into Ancestry.com for the first time in over a year, I was connected with another close match. This close match turned out to be a daughter of my brother, who we didn’t know existed. I have a niece I never knew about! Turns out, I was an aunt all along. I am looking forward to getting to know her soon.

The last twelve years of my life have had many ups and downs. There were times when I didn’t think I would get through it all. But there is one thing I have learned: beauty reveals itself when the dust settles. I am still hoping the dust has settled, although there will always be part of me that worries more is to come. I try to quiet that feeling when I look at my children. Despite all I’ve lost, they are a constant reminder of what I’ve gained.”

Courtesy of Jennifer McGrath

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer McGrath. You can follow her journey on her website here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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