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Letters help young woman grieve her best friend, slain at school

Macy and Jaelynn enjoyed spending time at a swim club. Photo courtesy of the McCombs family

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (BP) — Traumatized following the tragic shooting and subsequent death of one of her best friends, Macy McCombs published “Letters to Jaelynn: A True Story of Friendship, Loss, and Healing,” released this week. In the book, she shares the story of Jaelynn Willey’s death and the impact it had on her, her friends and the community and how God sustained them through it all. And she does it through (email) letters she wrote to Jaelynn — for years after her death.

The unthinkable

In 2018, Macy, the daughter of Lexington Park (Md.) Baptist Church Pastor Chris McCombs, was a junior, and Jaelynn was a sophomore attending Great Mills High School. The girls both participated on the school swim team and spent lots of time together laughing and talking about school, the future, boys and sometimes Jesus. Jaelynn was dating a boy named Austin Rollins.

“He was a good guy. We liked him,” Macy said of Rollins. “But around the end of January, Jaelynn began saying Austin wasn’t treating her right.” Jaelynn broke up with him. But, Macy says, Austin continued to strongly pursue the relationship, and he was continually contacting Macy and her friends. Macy, feeling that Austin was falling into depression, suggested he seek help — perhaps talk to her father, but he refused.

After being rebuffed multiple times, Austin stopped trying to reconcile with Jaelynn. For two weeks, there was no contact — until March 20, 2018, when Austin entered the school with his father’s Glock handgun and shot Jaelynn in the head before taking his own life.

The horror of the day will forever linger in the memories of Macy, her friends, family members, school staff and the community.

“When it happened, I was in my first-period band class,” Macy said. “We didn’t know what was going on. Then one of my friends’ sisters saw what happened and told us, “I think Jaelynn got shot.” At that time, Macy and her friends assumed it wasn’t a fatal wound. They soon learned they were wrong.

For many surreal hours, the students were interviewed by police and FBI agents. Macy said they were thankful to have been able to visit Jaelynn in the hospital to say their final goodbyes. She died on March 22.

Even as the drama unfolded, Macy said she felt God’s presence and His mercy. “While we were still in lockdown, a friend broke down and was crying in my arms,” she said.

She added that in her own strength, she, too, would have been falling apart, but God held her up. “I had strength that wasn’t my own, and I know that was God. He gave me His strength to be strong for other people. As more and more people began crying and freaking out, I kept calm and helped them. I was more worried about everyone else than myself, and I think that came from God.”

The dreaded phone call

Officials transferred students to a different school to meet their parents and guardians anxiously waiting in the auditorium.

Meanwhile, Chris and his wife Shawnetta were racing to the designated school after getting the phone call all parents of school-age children fear. Chris said, “There were police everywhere, and no one was communicating. It probably took an hour before we knew where Macy was and that she was OK,” he said.

After hearing the news, an officer approached Chris and told him Austin’s family needed him. Chris had recently baptized Austin’s sister, so he knew the family. The Rollinses had just been told about Austin’s death, and they were utterly broken. “I laid my hands on them and said the name of Jesus and prayed for them,” Chris said. “Later, they remembered Chris’ kindness and asked him to do Austin’s funeral.

God’s sovereign mercy

Macy did not want to go to his funeral. She was angry at Austin and God. “I was mad at God that he would take a close friend like this, asking Him, ‘Why would you let this happen?’”

The funeral, however, provided some peace. Macy listened to the eulogy and to others sharing about Austin. It touched her heart.

“Austin was a kid, had friends, a life, and a family who loved him who were devastated and grieving. Then I met his parents. My mom said they didn’t understand why our family was being so kind when Austin was so awful to my friend and hurt me. It felt like my world had stopped. I began to experience healing and forgiveness, and God softened my heart for Austin’s family.” That softening began to help Macy’s long-term healing process.

About a month after Jaelynn’s death, God used another event to encourage Macy. “I had hip surgery to remove screws from a prior surgery. During that operation, I was with Jaelynn. We were in this white room with no shadows. Jaelynn was wearing the same thing she was when she was shot. We were talking, laughing, and had a great time. She said, ‘You can let go. It’s OK. I’m happy.’ Then I heard my name. My mom was calling and I woke up. I think that experience, whether it was real or not, was a moment to heal and have this peace that she’s OK and I get to see her again.” Macy said hospital staff told her later that people under anesthesia don’t typically have dreams.

Letters to Jaelynn

To bring peace and closure to her grief, Macy began writing email letters to Jaelynn and continued for about two years. She used those letters for her newly published book “Letters to Jaelynn: A True Story of Friendship, Loss, and Healing.” It was released on March 20 — the fifth anniversary of the shooting.

“It shares the story of what happened, our friendship and the darkness that I had to go through — the things no one ever shares about school shootings,” Macy said. “You don’t see the wreckage the kids are left to live through.”

Sharing about the (email) letters in the book, Macy said, “The first letter was intended for Jaelynn to read when she got better. The night she died, I sent a long one. I wrote, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’

“I felt that writing these letters was helping me process what was going on, helping me breathe and move on from the tragedy. I think I did my deepest grieving and processing through the letters.”

Deciding to publish wasn’t easy. “It was hard to put it out there, to be vulnerable, But I want to help kids who lose their friends this way and show they can turn to God instead of politics or gun control – and that He can bring complete healing.”

Around March, two years after Jaelynn’s death, Macy said she felt the letters weren’t beneficial and were keeping the wounds open. “I had to stop and say another goodbye. I wrote, ‘I’ll never forget you, and you will always be a huge part of my life, but I have to say goodbye for my own sake.’”

God has continued to heal. Now it’s not as hard to live through the anniversaries, something for which she gives God the credit.

“I want to encourage people,” she said. “There are so many ways to grieve. There is no timeline. It’s OK to grieve outside the box.

“Even though I’ve mostly healed from the trauma, I’ll never forget it. There’s a big difference between healing and forgetting.”

Chris is also working on a book called “Seeing God in the Darkness” that will be available later this summer. He shares about his ministry to Austin’s family and how God has used him by opening doors in the community, sharing encouragement and peace, and the Gospel message. Well over 300 people with standing room only attended Austin’s funeral.

Chris now says as God used him to minister to families in the community, he was really ministering to his daughter.

He referred to Psalm 23 and said, “God is with us. In the midst of darkness, God is with us.”