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It’s hard to believe I’m talking about our family when I speak about my father-in-law’s shooting death

This piece is by Sujata (Susie) Paul-de Leede, a Virginia member of the Everytown Survivor Network and Survivor Network Fellow.

Susie’s father-in-law, Johan, on his boat

Johan steers the rudder of his boat

My in-laws lived in a beautiful home that overlooked the water. Johan, my father-in-law, loved to sail and dreamed of living on the water. After retirement, they found the home of their dreams and created a sanctuary for their children and grandchildren—a place we could come for rest and relaxation. One of my father-in-law’s passions was gardening and he excelled at it spectacularly. His garden was vibrant and lush.

My in-laws were generous in sharing their beautiful home with family and friends – it was the place for soccer team parties, family gatherings, Christmas celebrations, birthday parties and Memorial Day camping trips. Every guest was warmly welcomed and invited to share in the beauty of the area – the marsh, the birds, the sunsets. And at the center of it all was Johan, smiling proudly, taking in the atmosphere of family and friends enjoying themselves.

Our kids spent endless hours with their cousins. “Opa” had a sailboat and taught the kids to sail. They worked so hard creating this warm, generous home for all of us to enjoy, only for it to be ripped away from us one March night.

Johan standing on a beach on a foggy day
Susie’s father-in-law, Johan

It had been a beautiful day in Virginia. The skies were blue and it was unseasonably warm. I had a lovely time catching up with a friend at a local café that evening. But what I thought was just another typical day ended with a phone call that would tear my world apart.

It was about 1 a.m. when the phone rang. It’s never good news when the phone rings that late. My husband answered and I heard him say, “He’s been what? Shot?” It was so surreal. He hung up the phone, looked at me and said, “My dad’s been shot!”

My husband desperately wanted to find and be with his dad so I began calling around to local hospitals to see if he had been admitted. I thought to myself, “Trauma —  he must be at Fairfax Hospital.” I called Fairfax Hospital and explained who I was. I knew it was bad news when they put a counselor on the phone who immediately asked, “Is somebody coming?” I looked up at my husband and I said, “Fairfax Hospital,” and within a split second he was out the door.

I stayed home with the kids and we just sat there, numb, waiting for news about the condition of their beloved Opa. One of my daughters said, “Maybe if we go back to sleep, this will all have been a big nightmare when we wake up.”

But our nightmare did not end that night—it was just beginning. My father-in-law, an amazing 83-year-old husband, father and grandfather, died from a senseless and callous act of gun violence.

But gun violence crashed into our world—completely unexpectedly—that one night.

Prior to March 11, 2016, I had no direct experience with gun violence. It was an issue that always felt so distant—something you see on the news but never expect to happen to your family.

But gun violence crashed into our world—completely unexpectedly—that one night.

We learned that my in-laws had just finished dinner with relatives visiting from Europe. After everyone went to bed, my father-in-law stayed up to have a glass of milk, as he always did at night. Just then, someone from outside of the house opened fire, riddling the home with bullets. He was struck many times and succumbed to his injuries.

Johan and his grandchild playing on a beach
Johan and one of his grandchildren

To this day, the police have no suspects, no clues as to who carried out this heinous act. We have racked our brains for conflicts he may have had with others, but have come up with nothing. For anyone who has gone through a tragedy like this, it’s important to understand why this happened. I’m afraid our family will struggle until we get that closure.

If anything good has come from this it’s that our family has been brought closer together. But, on the other hand, my children’s innocence has been lost to the fear that what happened to their Opa could happen to anyone. They’re suspicious of people. They don’t see the world as a child should in a good light. They’ve experienced something ugly and dark.

Last year, we went to a Wear Orange event held by my local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Not only did our friends and family come out to support us, we met an entire community of people who were working to end gun violence.  We were so touched by the passion and dedication of the volunteers and decided in that moment to begin volunteering with the chapter and sharing my story as a survivor of gun violence.

Gun violence can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time– there are no boundaries. When you read about gun deaths in the paper or you see the statistics, it’s sterile. But when you hear someone talk about the person who died and about the impact it’s had on others, it becomes real. I think only when your heart’s been touched is when you take action. The more survivors who come out and tell their stories, the more real it becomes.

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