Leveled, like so many. Staring at my children, whose age range is precisely that of most of the child victims of the mass shooting at the Newtown, CT school earlier today. Breath knocked out, and here I am at the other side of the country, with two living children.
As often happens when I am working with particular diligence to grasp the dimensions and implications of some change or challenge in my everyday life, I had fallen into a quiet here. This sets up (as often happens) a dilemma: which image/ thought/ event should be the one to break the silence? This time: heart-rending national tragedy and the need to process it–the desire, even to invite collective processing of it.
I collected a list of resources at a post at Lesbian Family, by the way. Among the many, I found this Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration PDF, Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event, to be the most effective combination of succinct and detailed, particularly regarding age-specific reactions immediately and over time.
Much more personal, and therefore helpful in a different way, was what Kristen Howerton posted at her blog Rage Against the Minivan: five things to consider before talking to your kids about today’s tragedy. In addition to being a thoughtful parent of kids in the exact age range as the children killed in Newtown, she’s a Marriage and Family Therapist, so her pointers are seasoned by particularly valuable insight.
Many of the resources for supporting kids through something like this include references to protecting kids from bits of information they receive inadvertently, and with no context or full understanding, often from overhearing news on the television in a room. We’re spared that worry. We don’t have a television on in the background, with news or anything on it. That sort of thing is like a hammer to my brain (we either watch something or we don’t, but it doesn’t peck away at shreds of attention from the edges of the room). My beloved and I do consciously watch the video podcast of Rachel Maddow’s analysis of many days’ news, but that’s always after the kids are in bed.
My main concern over this weekend will be what our kids will overhear from others. We co-house with three other adults and two other kids, both of whom are older than our kids by several years. Thereafter, school. We were sent an email this afternoon by the principal, herself a (lesbian) mother of children my children’s ages (they attend another public school in the district). I can’t imagine the burden she feels on her shoulders, and the sorrow in her heart, as both an elementary school principal and a mother of young children. God forbid were something like this to happen in our school district, her heart would split in two, shepherd as she is to the 200+ children at our school, while her lambs are a few miles away. So I am breathing prayers for her, too, when I do my tonglen for self and other.
We learn that teachers and staff at the school will be prepared to support kids on Monday, I am presuming only as and if kids show signs or bring up questions. They plan a drill for January: what to do in case of an intruder at school. I can’t imagine how in the hell such a thing can be framed so as not to petrify the kids, but I know that will be their A#1 concern. I also suppose, particularly as the professionals who keenly feel responsible for these young souls, they need to rehearse this disaster response as much as they do earthquake and fire responses.
Impossible, truly inconceivable, that such a thing is necessary. An unnatural disaster.
Some news of this event, I suspect, may trickle down to our kids either at school, from other peers, or at school, via older kids, or overheard. There is no way to convey even the most minimal facts without their menacing those as young and helpless. If asked point blank, I will not say the ages, I will not say how they were killed, I can’t even imagine how to substitute a verb.
“Their lives here were ended by someone who was not well and who had easy access to a powerful weapon.” I can’t even really stomach writing that sentence, much less imagine saying anything like it to my children.
“Something very sad happened on the other side of the country.” At which point I pause: what an easy out. As if there is a continent between my children and random gun violence.
I would hope they wouldn’t ask for follow-up. If they did, and they didn’t know what the event was, my thoughts right now are to refuse further detail. Just, “It’s not information that would help you to know. The main thing to know is, you are surrounded by adults who care for you and do their very best to ensure you are happy and well and safe. And that’s been the case for you so far, and that’s what we expect will always be the case.”
There again: hedging. Not knowing where to prepare, where to protect. Or what is protection.
If they somehow learn that something really really terrible happened to children? Their age? In school? Where they go to be apart from us every day, for hours and hours? That it was murder? Of a whole classroom’s worth of kids? All I can do is hope against hope that this is something that slips past them. This time. Honestly. All I can think we’d say is, “This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it already happened, and we are so, so sorry for the families who are sad right now.” Hating that in my gut, I have no idea whether this is true. I don’t even know whether inviting them to spend a moment sending love to those families would help, hurt, or exceed their capacities.
All a dense fog.
To a degree, I trust that whatever they hear and whatever they’re told, they will naturally filter what they sense will freak them out. I well know the look (a faraway haze settles), and am smart enough to ask: Have you heard enough? Yet I also worry that they will internalize fears and–I worry this most about my 5 year-old son–not articulate them. So I read these resources and scan for the signs to look for. I will look at what they draw, and how they play-act, and whether previously ordinary threats have swelled in proportion.
Each sentence I try out just stings. Like all parents, I do not want the world to include such unthinkable threats to any child, and to tell my child this makes me feel painfully impotent and complicit. Impotent: we none of us could protect our children from something like this, other than by spending our lives lobbying for gun control, which (God love them) some do. Complicit: we have not yet eliminated this threat from their lives.
Already, and generally, we convey in broad, verbal strokes–no images; not yet–that children elsewhere in the world can and do suffer a great deal, from material deprivation, war in their countries. But it is very, very hard to take the next steps, to the fact that adults can and do personally, violently abuse and murder children. That last verb, even. So impossible to even type. (Typing slowed to a key-by-key crawl.)
I’m not sure how or wether we can prepare our kids for the capriciousness of the world. It’s enough that accidents and terminal illnesses may strike or take hold at any moment. The specter of that is precisely what our kids were born into (close friend’s accidental death six weeks after daughter’s birth; daughter’s older cousin’s cancer death at 10, six months after her birth). Capricious death grabs a seat at our dinner table nightly, stealing morsels off our plates when we’re not looking. But this? This is a menace that we can’t prepare our kids for, nor do I want to.