I’ve tried to think about how to write about the shooting in Newtown and every option, every way of putting words to the situation seems tired and pale. No one wants to read one more opinion on the matter. No one wants to see my personal therapy post. The last thing we need is another layer of noise on the situation. So in an effort to trick me into writing this in the first place and you into reading it, let’s say we’re talking about communication and grief, both in general and in the context of this tragedy.
Tonight, Marc and I sat down with candles lit for the children and glasses of wine for us and talked things out and through. We have not always chosen or been able to do this and I am endlessly grateful that we can have such good conversations. We talked about first reactions, thoughts on loop, feelings that surprised us. Among these surprises was anger, lots and lots of anger. Specifically, anger directed at people choosing to not deal with their own feelings about this and either totally avoiding the topic or channeling the complexity in (what I would consider) a stupid direction.
But we’re smart people. This anger is not about avoidant parents. I’m angry that children were killed and that we were helpless to stop it.
This isn’t to say I don’t think we need to be tending to our feelings on this. We have to. We must. For the sake of our children. And the brilliant response to this tragedy has been lots of resources getting out there about talking to kids about tragedy. I feel the most important point in these articles is helping children know that anger, sadness, confusion, all their feelings are OK. It is OK to feel these things. We are so geared towards “curing” our children’s unhappiness that we forget recognizing and learning to tend to these feelings is an important part of their growth. Again, as far as I’m concerned, these are the most important questions/parts when exploring emotions with a child:
What would you call this feeling?: Having a child describe what it’s like puts fewer limits on the emotion and moves it away from our “adult” understanding of what mad/sad/happy is. My angry is probably not the same as your angry so let’s avoid the confusion and get a clearer picture.
Where do you feel it in your body?: Knowing and paying attention to the physical symptoms that accompany a child’s emotions is a short cut to what’s going on. These symptoms are a huge hint that there is a strong emotion present and that it’s most likely being avoided. As a kid, I used to get a headache every time I went to dance class. I felt so anxious and isolated in this class. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me but I never talked about it. My parents figured out what was going on because they knew my symptom was headaches. This didn’t mean they pulled me out of dance class immediately but it did open the door for conversation because it indicated 1) I was feeling something 2) I was tucking this feeling away and would probably shy away from an all-out conversation.
Reassure that you have heard how they feel and where they feel it: Easy. Just repeat what they’ve said. Remember, we need to use their words instead of our assumptions.
Share when you have felt this way: Letting a child know that an adult has felt sad or mad is like opening a door. Don’t worry, it won’t demote you from super-hero status! It will, however, add another dimension to super-hero powers: feeling feelings! And with everything going on, it really does take a super hero to tend to these things. I believe it’s up to the parent whether or not to cry with your child. I think for a young child this can be confusing and even misconstrued as “I made (insert your role) cry.” However, it’s also important to communicate genuine feelings and not say “Mommy feels sad” only when it’s easy to do so. As simply as possible, explain what has happened and what specifically has made you sad. End with the assurance that you will be OK…because whether or not you believe it, you will be. Just don’t be confused if OK looks different than it did before.
“What can we do with this feeling?”: This question affirms that we can do something with feelings and that it isn’t the other way around (the caveat here of course is serious mental illness.) But, without even knowing it, we learn as children that anger is bad. Follow me down the rabbit hole a bit! We’re itty bitty babies. We rely on mother for food. Therefore if we were to get angry with mother, we believe she might decide to take away our life force (ie: milk.) So when we do naturally feel angry with mother we almost simultaneously also feel anxiety. Anxiety because of our anger and what (as itty bitty babies) we believe could be the result of expressing this anger. So we naturally come to associate feelings with anxiety. Top that off with adults who, with the best of intentions, are trying to keep us from feeling anything less than great and we just don’t know what to do when these emotions rise in us. So ask your child “What can we do with this?” and while you’re at it ask “what can we not do with this?” This is not the time to bring in the shoulds. What should we do or not do doesn’t comunicate empowerment; should translates to rules, expectations, and a very low level of understanding our actions. Maybe we can throw a pillow on our bed. But we cannot throw a toy at the wall/dog/little brother. The rule here is pretty obvious: we cannot do things that harm self, other, or property. We cannot do this, because we are capable of doing something that helps us express these feelings without causing hurt, which will just make us feel upset again!
That’s as close as I can get to anything helpful right now. I want to say “there’s light in the darkness, hope in desperation.” I believe these things. I know these things. But this is a new breed of sadness. I can’t stop thinking about the “before”: before this man felt so lost and alone, before this awful plan was devised, before he entered the school. December 14 revealed that all of us lucky enough to have our children and families with us and in health are living in the before moments. The families of all who were killed are in an after, trying to make sense of things, find the pieces, put them together. These tasks are not necessary for those of us in the “before.” I’m afraid to move on and forget what a blessing it is to be in this before. I am so much more aware of how much we have been given, so grateful, so grounded. I’m afraid if I say “we’re going to be OK” things will return to the way they were.
I have only grieved a couple times during my life but through work, I’ve been with many who were processing some kind of loss. What I know of grief is that the true process never returns you to where you were before. I saw this most clearly when my mom worked through the death of both of her parents within a week of each other. The sadness, anger, exhaustion, and general turmoil transforms you and somehow changes your life’s path.
I think that’s what I can hope for in this overwhelming aftermath: that we are open to the ways, great or small, our paths have been changed forever and for good.