Melton photographed by her husband Sonny’s grave on March 27, 2018 in Big Sandy, Tenn. He was buried in the same Eric Church concert T-shirt that she is wearing.
Melton photographed by her husband Sonny’s grave on March 27, 2018 in Big Sandy, Tenn. He was buried in the same Eric Church concert T-shirt that she is wearing.
Austin Hargrave

Six Months After Route 91, Survivor Heather Melton Talks About Coping With the Loss of Her Husband

"Everything you planned for your future is gone."

Heather Melton, 49, an orthopedic surgeon from Paris, Tenn., attended Route 91 with her husband, Sonny, who was killed while shielding her from gunfire. Surviving tragedy, in her words.

When something like this happens, everything you planned for your future is gone. Things that you know used to make sense don’t really make sense anymore. We were building a home together, different trips, things we were doing. It’s all gone. There’s that aspect of it, and then there’s just the day-to-day aspect. We worked together [Sonny, 29, was an ER nurse at Melton’s hospital] and lived together, and it’s just a very lonely, sad place because he was my best friend. When things happen to me now -- it might be something good or it might be something bad -- the first thing I think is, “I want to tell Sonny,” and then I realize that he’s not there anymore.

I’ve had to keep moving forward. I know that Sonny would want me to do that. I have three children [from a previous marriage], and I can’t stop planning and moving and being a good parent to them. I maybe had one week off after his funeral, and I was back to work. I’ve been doing things to try to keep his memory alive, and so it has been almost exhaustively busy. I don’t have a lot of time to feel that grief that you feel more intensely when you’re by yourself.

The night of the shooting, I was at the hospital with one of the other survivors. He lost his wife of 32 years, and he and I have become really good friends. At first, I talked to him every single day and now, maybe a couple of times a week, but I know he’s there for me and I’m there for him. There’s another woman that I met at the [Country Music Association Awards] -- they had a tribute, so there were some other survivors there -- she also lost her husband of 32 years and checks in on me probably once a week. Or if she’s feeling something and she doesn’t understand it, she’ll message me. Nobody else understands how we’re feeling. You have crazy thoughts, and your feelings are all messed up and you’re like, “Wait, is this weird or is this how I’m supposed to feel?” We have each other, at least, to talk about that.

At first, I was like, “Why would I ever go to a concert again?” But I’ve actually gone to a lot now. After the shooting happened, the Eric Church fan club adopted me. It has been amazing. They’ve gotten me tickets to concerts and met me for concerts. They kind of kept me going that way. I refuse to be paralyzed by what happened because, to me, if I change what I was doing, then the shooter wins. I don’t want to change who I was or who I am.

I have to push myself a little bit. I was at another concert called Country Rising, and Keith Urban actually bought my ticket so I could go. That was awesome. When Jason Aldean was playing [at that show], it was incredibly emotional. I didn’t feel scared or fear for my life. It was just a really hard thing.

[When I hear about violent events in the news], it breaks my heart so much more than it ever did before, because I know what all those families are going to have to endure. I would hear about [violent acts] before and feel sad, but I never had the visceral response that I have now. Now I know. When the Parkland [Fla.] shooting happened, I knew that all of those families are going to feel that same pain. It makes me incredibly sad knowing your life is changed forever.

Have my attitudes on guns changed? Yes and no. My husband was a legal gun owner. He had an AR-15. My brothers are all legal gun owners. I’ve never personally even wanted to touch a gun, but where I live, everybody really is a strong advocate for their Second Amendment rights. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that there’s a lot of places that improvement can happen
so that we can all be safer. There’s clearly some huge flaws in how our background checks happen or how laws are different from state to state.

The other thing we have to deal with is the mental health crisis we have in our country. We have to figure out other ways that we can deter people or help people from feeling so isolated that they feel like they have to go and gun down a bunch of innocent people. There are so many other components to it. You can’t just focus on one part of it.

Some of the more horrific memories from that night I wish I could erase from my mind, but I can’t. I remember a lot of things that night because it was probably our best night of the whole [three-day] festival. We were having such a good time. We took a lot of pictures together, and I remember literally looking at him at that concert and thanking God that I had his love in my life. It was such a strong feeling that I remember it. I remember just thinking how lucky I felt to have him.

As told to Adrienne Gaffney.

This article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard.


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