SALT LAKE CITY — Grief was like air for Sy Snarr in the weeks and months after she lost her 18-year-old son in a random shooting.
The grief very quickly became both a sanctuary and a prison.
Even as it suffocated her, it felt like the only place she could exist — a strange in-between place where her anguish seemed to breathe life into her son’s memory.
She existed in this place almost everyday after a 19-year-old shot Zachary Snarr and Yvette Rodier as they were setting up a camera to take pictures of the rising full moon at Little Dell Reservoir in August of 1996. The mother of four searched for reasons, explanations, some shred of information that might make her loss feel bearable.
But nothing satisfied the injustice she felt in losing her “beautiful boy” to such brutality.
“I was sitting in my living room and everywhere I looked, I would see Zach,” she recalled. “His guitar, sitting on the couch playing his guitar, walking through the door, saying, ‘Mom, I’m home.’ … And I was sobbing. I was just sitting there sobbing and this was quite a while just missing him. … And I remember looking up. My oldest son was standing there and he just looked so sad. And when I looked at him, he just walked out of the room.”
That’s when it hit her.
That grief that she’d wrestled and embraced, that she’d tried to run away from and find sanctuary in, that terrible vigil was keeping her from the people she loved most.
“That was the kick in my gut I think that I needed,” she said. “When he saw me so upset, and he looked so sad and just turned around and left the room, I realized I had let the death of one child become more important than the lives of three more than I loved every bit as much as Zach. And it just brought me up short, like, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing to my family? They deserve to have a mom. … They need to know that I still love them more than my life, and that I would do anything for them.'”
Angry with everything
But in those quiet moments alone, Snarr didn’t know if she could do what was necessary. She didn’t know how to leave her painful cocoon. She didn’t know how to be a “normal” parent, a wife, a friend when sadness seemed a part of every breath.
“I knew I had to change, but I didn’t think I could change my feelings for Jorge Benvenuto,” she said of the man who pleaded guilty to killing her son and gravely wounding Rodier. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t. I would just curl up in the fetal position. Honestly … it was just so painful. And that pain and then the anger.”
When she wasn’t swimming through heartbreak, she was consumed with rage.
“I was angry with everything and everybody,” she said. “I was angry at (Benvenuto), obviously. I was angry at God for allowing this to happen to my son, if that makes sense. I would see other 18-year-olds out there, and I thought, ‘Why are you here and my son is not?’ I know, that’s totally irrational.”
She thought any possibility of enjoying life had been buried with her son.
“I’d see people out running and laughing, and I’d think, ‘How can they do that? Was I ever that way?'” she recalled. “And I thought ‘I’ll never be happy again. I really, truly believed I will never be happy again. I can’t smile. I can’t laugh. … It was just so devastating.”
Snarr’s friend and neighbor Dru Weggland Clark said she could see and feel her friend’s pain, even when she tried to hide it.
“I personally have never seen anyone with such a physical manifestation of grief,” Clark said. “When you hugged her … (you could feel she was) just broken, just distraught.”
Clark had always admired the kind of parents Ron and Sy Snarr were to their four children.
“They were a great role model about how to raise a family,” she said. “All the kids knew how to work, how to get things done, but they also knew how to have great family times and fun.”
Sydney Snarr Davis, who was the second oldest of the Snarr children, said losing her younger brother sent the family into a tailspin.
“I grew up in a really happy home,” she said. “My childhood was ideal. I loved my brothers. They loved me. My parents were excellent. We just had so much laughter and joy in our home and really, we were a family that truly loved and enjoyed each other. So after Zach died, my parents just … we were changed.”
The close-knit family was tethered to each other by their grief, but somehow it also isolated them from each other. The children worried about adding to their parents’ burden.
“I would feel like I knew I needed help,” Davis said. “And we all did. But I would go home (from college at Utah State), and I’d see how traumatized and depressed and anguished my parents were. And I was like, ‘I can’t add to that. I don’t want to add to that.’ And Trent did the same. And Levi did the same. And we all just suffered on our own. Yeah, I knew my family was there for me. And they knew I was there for them. But it’s like how can I add to your burden?”
A couple of weeks after Zach’s death, Davis had a dentist appointment to have her wisdom teeth removed. Because she was returning to school at USU, they couldn’t reschedule it.
“I came home from the surgical center, and the pain medication had started wearing off,” she recalled. “And I remember laying on the couch, and I started crying because my mouth hurt so badly.”
Her dad came into the room and found her crying.
“My dad sat next to me and I said, ‘Dad, it just, it just hurts so much,'” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks 25 years later. “And my dad wrapped his arms around me and just started sobbing. And he’s like, ‘I know Doll. I know, it hurts. It hurts so bad.’ And just sobbed. And … we were both crying, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘We aren’t talking about the same pain.’ And my dad just cried and cried.”
Another devastating blow
Davis said they all did the best they could under the weight of their heartbreak, but real joy returned to their lives with the birth of their first grandchild when Davis gave birth to Zachary Davis in October of 2000.
“My parents took on that role with gusto,” Davis said laughing. “Like, they ate it up! And so that was when things started to kind of lift.”
Life gave Sy and Ron Snarr seven grandchildren, and they became the kind grandparents every kid dreams about having — building forts in the living room, slumber parties and trips that allowed them to build treasured memories.
But as they worked to rebuild their happy family life, they were dealt a devastating blow. Their youngest son, Levi, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sy Snarr met the diagnosis with determined optimism.
“He had a very rare cancer,” she said. “It’s epithelioid sarcoma, which they told us from the get-go, there’s no cure. I said, ‘You just treat him because there’s something more powerful than you.’ … I truly believed I could not, I would not lose another son.”
But they did lose the boy they called their gentle giant.
On Dec. 17, 2007, Levi Johnson Snarr left to, as he told his mother, “go live with my brother.”
“I wanted to die for a long time,” Sy Snarr said, pain evident in every syllable. “I used to think, ‘Why would anybody want to die? … How could anybody be that depressed?’ You know, I never understood it.”
She pauses as the tears fill her eyes.
“I get it,” she said. “I get what it’s like to be that depressed, where you literally do not want to get out of bed. I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to go on with my life. I wanted to die.”
Ron Snarr was equally despondent after burying his youngest son next to Zach in the cemetery plots where they’d intended to be buried. He was working at the University of Utah on the baseball field when a storm rolled in. He raised his arms to the sky and yelled for relief.
“He just put his arms up and said, ‘Come and take me God! Take me! Strike me down.’ I mean, he was like me; it’s like, what is going on here?” his wife said. “We’ve lost … these two amazing sons in totally different ways. But both were so painful. And you’re just trying to get over, get on with losing one and kind of getting to where you think, OK, I’m surviving this day by day … and then we lose another one? And it was just too much.”
First feeling of hope
Sy Snarr said that the weight of grief and anger eventually became too much to bear. She knew she needed a change, but she had no idea how or what might help them.
“When you have that much hatred and anger in you, you become that; you are angry and hateful,” she said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I had become.”
It was as Sy Snarr listened to a woman speak at a church meeting that she felt the first feelings of hope. The woman talked about finding forgiveness after losing someone to violence.
“And it just hit me, I thought, I want to be like that,” she said. “I want to feel that. I want to be able to forgive him.”
That decision was just the beginning. Finding her way to forgiveness would be complicated, but eventually she felt like she’d found a way to rid herself of the resentment that made her heart feel so dark and heavy.
“And it was a process,” she said. “I’ve likened it to backpacks full of rocks, that you have to let go a little at a time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight for me.”
In fact, Sy Snarr said it took her about 15 years to put down those rocks. Her husband said it was a little longer for him — maybe 18 years. But eventually, they found themselves in a good place, a happy place.
Sy Snarr only had one remaining wish, she said. One thing she hoped that someday she’d be able to do.
“I wished I could tell him I’d forgiven him,” she said. “I’ll never get that chance.”
But she was wrong. Not only would she get that chance, she was about to receive the kind of gift so miraculous, most people don’t even believe it exists.