Person of the Week
Staying Strong After an Unfathomable Tragedy
Four years after the loss of his son Ethan to a gunshot, Mike Song and his family continue their efforts to make Ethan’s life and loss meaningful by supporting Ethan’s causes and programs that keep kids safe, including those that inform about the dangers of opioid abuse, texting, and driving and promote gun safety and advocacy. Next up is a return of the Keep Kids Safe SongStrong 5K is on Saturday, June 4. (Photo by Ben Rayner/The Courier)
Following the tragic loss of his son Ethan in 2018, Mike Song says, “You see a photo and every molecule of your being just wants to jump into that picture and resume life from there.” (Photo courtesy of the Song family)
Most Guilford residents are sadly all too aware of the tragedy that occurred in January 2018, when 15-year-old Ethan Song lost his life in an accidental shooting. The grief, despair, and frustration the Song family has endured since Ethan’s death simply isn’t possible to truly convey.
Despite their grief, Ethan’s parents Mike and Kristin Song have mustered community support to prevent senseless deaths like Ethan’s from occurring again, gotten legislation passed, and provided assistance to a number of organizations focusing on teen safety—and now the Song Strong 5K Road Race on Saturday, June 4 is back on after a two year pandemic postponement.
Describing what Mike his wife Kristin and his family went through from the first minutes of coming to grips with the reality that Ethan had been killed, is every parents’ most dreaded thought. Ethan had just gotten his braces off the morning of the day he died, and a quick photo of his toothy grin texted to Mike from his wife coming back from the dentist filled Mike’s day with joy.
Just hours later, Ethan was gone.
“It feels like you’ve been hurled off of a cliff. You just feel like you are falling. Then the pain that you feel is quadrupled when you see the pain on the faces of your family,” says Mike.
“When you see your wife, who is a superstar mom, and you almost don’t recognize her because she has never had that expression of despair on her face before. People don’t probably think about it, but to have to call your children and tell them that their brother has died…I facetimed my kids and so I was able to see their expressions when I told them, and that is something that I cannot forgot…You simply cannot unsee, unhear, or unfeel what that was like. We were such a tight family, and had been through so many ups and downs, and it is very difficult.”
Mike says that the support of the community was one of the main reasons the family was able to eventually cope and struggle through the misery.
“I always love it when people approach us and let us know their feelings. It may not be the perfect time, it may be the fifth person in a row to come up and say something, but it’s always done out of love. This is a such a great community and such beautiful people here on the shoreline,” says Mike. “I think of it as one long hug that we have gotten from the people of Guilford. I still have people come up to us and talk about it. I know that in their heart they’re trying to do the best they can and to comfort.”
Mike says the stories related by others about how Ethan affected their lives and his kindness to their children has also been a source of comfort and grounding for he and his family.
“The greatest miracle is when they tell us how Ethan treated their kids. Ethan was the type of kid who people tell us, ‘He treated my child so nice, my kid was the awkward one in class or didn’t get picked for a game’ and Ethan would say ‘You’re on my team’ or ‘This seat is free, sit here.’ Those stories are worth a million to us,” says Mike.
“There is something about facing your fears and finding the strength to go on. It can actually give you the strength to go on,” he says. “It can be brutal sometimes.”
However, with Guilford being such a small community, every inch, every corner, every tree holds a memory for the family. The Songs also had two other children to love and support, making for an often overwhelming weight to bear.
“Right now, we’re sitting outside here at Cilantro’s (on the green in downtown Guilford) and it was so hard at first to do anything like that. I couldn’t even look at the green. In fact, that tree right there, across the street, was one Ethan used to hang from and be silly on, and so one of my goals was to face those tragic feelings and go to those places,” says Mike.
“Since I’m a runner, I would run by all of the places, because we used to live right down here and we had so many memories as a family. What I found is that as you confront those feelings, deal with those feelings, talk about those feelings, you begin to find the strength inside yourself to keep going, but for a while it was very difficult,” he continues. “We couldn’t even leave the house. It was several months before we were even functional again. You see a photo and every molecule of your being just wants to jump into that picture and resume life from there.”
For the Songs, acceptance has been hard to come by.
“It’s not rational sometimes. You wake up at night thinking it’s all just a dream,” Mike says. “There is such a deep, deep connection between child and parent, you always knew that, but when you go through something like this it, your whole heart, and your whole being is living for your kids, it just changes everything. It will never be the same and the sooner you accept that, the better off you can be.”
Mike and Kristin, along with their two other children, have not only lost a son and a brother, but have had to navigate it all in a very public way. The nature of Ethan’s death has put the Songs in the spotlight, but rather than shrink from this daunting responsibility, the Song family forged the tragedy into something positive.
“There is an extremely deep need to help other people, and it is the only thing that relieves the pressure. There is always this constant pressure forcing you down, sometimes just getting out of bed is like bench pressing the world. But once you start doing things for other people, or for animals, or for another family that has lost a child, somehow you feel this strength building,” says Mike. “Kids are going to make mistakes growing up, that’s why they’re not called adults. The problem with a gun mistake, it’s one and done. Whether it’s a suicide or an accident, it’s one and done. There is no second chance. Kids should be taking some risks, that’s part of growing up, but when you add in a gun, there’s no coming back. But we know we have saved some lives along the way.”
Not long after their loss, Kristin and Mike began what many thought would be a wasted effort to try to form some kind of bipartisan consensus and pass a law that might help prevent another needless death. Despite the naysayers, the Songs were able to bring both sides of the aisle together in the state legislature and actually get Ethan’s Law passed. The heart of the bill focuses on proper firearm storage, requiring Connecticut residents to secure guns properly if anyone under 18 resides in the residence.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced a federal version of the bill in the Senate and the Songs actively lobby in Washington for acceptance of the bill, including a visit to the Oval Office a few weeks ago to meet with President Joe Biden.
“The great thing is that so many gun owners agree with us. That is what they were taught by the NRA. This is unlike most gun laws, in that most everybody agrees on it,” he says. “We know that three states [Colorado, Maine, and Connecticut] have flipped over to adopt this law, due to Kristin’s advocacy.
“I helped a little, but she is amazing and it’s pretty amazing to see an entire state change,” says Mike. “We are really proud of that, and it was bipartisan here in Connecticut. What we knew was that we needed to make a lot of noise. We appeared on a lot of TV both locally and nationally, we did a gun buy-back campaign, we did a bowl-a-thon…all of this stuff made the news and I think what happened was, people started realizing that this is a good law for everybody.”
Mike realized things were changing when 86th District State Representative Vin Candelora—“He’s a Republican, he was all in and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him for doing that”—came on board.
“Vin and [State Representative] Sean Scanlon [D-98] were the political strategists from that point on, so we had two great local political strategists and those two worked together to get this passed,” he says. “I still owe Sean and Vin a huge debt, and [State Senator] Christine Cohen [D-12], everyone—it was just amazing.”
Unfortunately, Mike says the national campaign is not proceeding with the same united support, but he hopes that that will change despite the seemingly insurmountable walls in place when it comes to the issue of firearms and restrictions on possession.
“Those lines are so firmly defined, nationally. And we keep running into that as we try to go national. But Connecticut is a special place, and that is a special thing that happened. I really believe that is the way the country is going to come back from such deep polarization,” says Mike. “It’s people like Vin and Sean, and Kristin, and all the people who have helped us with our events. We are so lucky to have such incredible volunteers and advisors around us. It was amazing. I have to give 90 percent of the credit to Kristin, she is just incredible.”
Mike says that part of the program is actually providing gun safes to participants and residents. Actually having the devices, which are easily opened bio-metric products, has won over many who ordinarily would oppose any firearm restrictions.
Staying Song Strong
The Songs have only grown stronger as their philanthropic work has steadily taken on more importance, and their 5K run to honor Ethan and raise awareness for firearm safety and bullying is back on after a two-year COVID hiatus.
“We’ve missed two years and we are really, really excited to be back,” says Mike. “We had so much momentum with the first two, so it was frustrating to have those postponements. Anyone who knows me, knows I only go at 100 percent with everything I do, and it’s hard to go 100 percent if you know it can be canceled. It’s like promoting with one hand tied behind your back. We are excited and it’s on rain or shine.”
Mike and Kristin both urge everyone to come out and participate on Saturday, June 4. All of the funds gathered will go to various organizations that provide funding and/or assistance for gun safety, opioid abuse, anti-bullying programs, and hazardous driving issues.
“It is such a fun event and people are really going to love,” says Mike. “We hope everyone comes out—you can run it, you can walk it, and you can run and walk it if you want. You can register in advance or right up until almost race time.”
The Keep Kids Safe SongStrong 5K is on Saturday, June 4, starting at the Guilford Fair Grounds on Lovers Lane in Guilford. The arrival time is 8 a.m. Registration is open until 7:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.songstrong.org. The SongStrong 5K celebrates the life of Ethan Song who passed away in January 2018 at the age of 15. All proceeds go to the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, a non-profit that develops and supports Song’s causes and programs that keep kids safe, including those that inform about the dangers of opioid abuse, texting, and driving and promote gun safety and advocacy.