For Greg Zanis, mourning is a full-time job.
In just the past few weeks, he’s been to Jackson, Mississippi, near where a military transport plane crashed in July, killing 16 service members. He’s been to Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. And to New York City, where eight people were killed in a terror attack on a Manhattan bike path. And to Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 25 people and an unborn child were gunned down in a church sanctuary.
“For a month and a half now, I’ve been doing nothing but making full-time crosses,” he says.
For Zanis, 66, the stopovers represent wayposts on a seemingly endless effort to share in — and, hopefully, to ease — the personal grief that lies beneath some of the most horrific headlines for our time. A retired carpenter, he fulfills his mission methodically, memorializing with handmade wooden crosses the victims of mass shootings and other national tragedies at or near the places where their blood was shed.
Zanis crisscrosses the country in a pickup truck filled with his handiwork. And he’s never in one place for long. Tragedy, it seems, is always lying in wait, ready to bring the country to its knees — again.
Thousands of lives, hours of labor
Zanis’ crosses are white and finished with a red wooden heart or a name or a victim’s photo. Each takes about half an hour to build before the personal touches. Sometimes, donors give him lumber, or members of a heartbroken community offer their muscle.
“People come and help me when I need help. They just stop by and have heard about me or want to know more about what I’m doing,” he says. “Carpenters and painters come over and help.”
The hours of labor add a grim statistic to the tragedies Zanis works to observe. He estimates, for instance, that he spent about 80 hours building crosses for the 58 Las Vegas victims.
In all, Zanis reckons he’s built and displayed about 20,000 wooden crosses over the past 20 years.
‘I know what the victims are going through’
His road trip through grief started in 1996, when Zanis’ father-in-law was murdered just a few blocks from his own house in Aurora, Illinois. Zanis found his body at the bottom of the stairs. He had been shot to death.
“I was so mad someone killed my best friend,” Zanis says. “It changed my life. I lost 50 pounds in six months. I know what the victims are going through when someone kills your friend or family member.”
“Every cross I am building, in a way, is in the memory of my best friend,” he says.
The cross-building started as something small. Later that year, a 6-year-old boy was killed nearby in gang-related gunfire.
“I went to his home with the first cross I made,” Zanis says. “It was very emotional. Why would someone kill a 6-year-old? That’s what the father was yelling outside the home, he was just yelling, ‘Why? Why?'”
Zanis is still friends with that little boy’s mother, he says.
Since then, Zanis has encountered so many other parents processing the same kind of pain — at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary and in Chicago, where he has pledged for the second year to make a cross for every victim of gun violence. Last year, he had to build more than 700.
The cost of compassion
This is Zanis’ passion, he says: investing time and money and miles and tears into absorbing, if only for a moment, another person’s pain.
But it’s expensive and exhausting.
When he’s on the road, Zanis sleeps in his truck, his daughter told CNN. Donations are routed strictly to materials for the crosses and gas, she said. When contributions and volunteer labor don’t get the job done, Zanis digs into his own pocket.
At times, “I have personally asked my dad to stop putting up the crosses,” Maria Raibley, Zanis’ daughter, writes on a GoFundMe she set up for her father, noting that the financial and physical strains were just too much.
But peering deeper into her father’s mission, Raibley “had a change of heart,” she writes.
“I’ve seen my dad change for the better since he started doing these crosses,” she writes. “This truly makes him happy. I can’t call my dad without him talking to be about the people he met and what he plans to do with the crosses.”
No one has ever rejected Zanis’ goodwill, he says, and it’s the personal connection — the bond between his grief, his work and the grief of others — that pushes him on. Zanis would like to hang up his hammer one day, but, he says, “history always repeats itself.”
For now, he expects he’ll soon point his pickup toward another destination where he’ll have more grief — and crosses — to bear.
“I cry all the time because of this, and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” Zanis says. “When I go into a town, I keep it together. But once I leave, I get in my truck, and I just let it all out — for as long as it takes.”