A mother embraces her daughter next to a candlelight vigil in Newtown, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. (David Goldman/AP)
There are no words. And yet conversations must happen.
The massacre of innocents in Newtown, Connecticut reverberates far beyond that devastated community.
When tragedy strikes and children are among the victims, we are first and foremost grief-stricken for the families involved.
Nothing compares, we cannot know, and language fails.
There is no making sense of it; it is senseless.
But parents far from the scene also understand that their own kids might need some help to find their way.
Experience has taught me, as it’s taught so many other parents, that times like this call for two key reactions.
First, we hug our children. That’s instinct.
We hug them no matter how old they are, and if they are already living elsewhere we hug them however we can across the miles. They feel the safety and the reassurance of that embrace. It also centers us, as parents, giving us the moment of balance we need to move forward. It’s a tiny starting point.
And then, we need to listen. Instinctive? Not very. Some of us, we… well… we do a lot of talking.
As parents, we become problem-solvers. Most of us reflexively snap into the mode of taking charge. We are accustomed to finding out about trouble and then explaining how to fix it, or intervening to do the fixing ourselves.
We can’t fix this. We can’t fix death. We can’t fix a gaping hole where solid ground should be. We can’t fix the hurt and confusion and sadness and fear and anger that children and all of us might feel because darkness descended upon an elementary school one beautiful crisp late autumn morning.
But we can listen.
When children know they are being listened to — fully and deeply and quietly and patiently — they often share thoughts and feelings and questions that need to emerge but that don’t flow as easily in the back and forth of daily life. The less we interrupt, and the more we simply pay attention, the more the kids open up. Thus, by the simple act of listening, we provide support and encourage a healthy navigation through complicated situations.
This tends to be easier with younger children. They are often unaware of a tragedy that does not directly involve them, because they usually can be and should be sheltered from exposure to related media reports and household discussions. Still, because that shelter might be porous, it’s wise to gently prompt the little ones to let us in on what they might have picked up. Then we need to honor what we hear. Fortunately, given their developmentally-appropriate perspective that the world revolves around them and that grownups are omniscient and omnipotent, we typically offer them all the comfort and security they need by telling them that we are taking care of them and keeping them safe.
With older children, it gets more tricky. However, the same principle applies. Ask some questions, listen, and accept without judgment whatever spills forth. Or doesn’t. Pre-teens can be an unpredictable lot. Just when we think they might fall apart, and we are gearing up to rescue and soothe, they can surprise or even infuriate us by appearing oblivious to big and important concerns. We don’t, of course, want them to be hurting… but on occasion we are taken aback when they are not. They might, say, assure us they realize we are looking out for them and then pivot directly to requesting mac-n-cheese for lunch. When this happens, we can take a few deep breaths and perhaps even smile, and remind ourselves that we should be happy that they feel so secure, that they trust the fundamental reliability of the universe, that they possess a carefree confidence. We also can remind them that should they ever feel wobbly, we are there to listen. And to serve them good ol’ mac-n-cheese.
As for adolescents and the college set, parental hugs and listening still matter. But with these sons and daughters who are sliding into or dwelling in adulthood, we can expand our range. We can engage in conversation about policy and politics. Such an approach is therapeutic; via learning about issues and taking a stand we begin the process of gaining some control, and when we have some control we feel less helpless in the face of the unfathomable. More importantly, increasing our understanding and developing convictions prepares us to act and make a difference; making a difference is part of growing up.
We can’t make a difference for the children who lost their chance to grow up, and for the other victims in Connecticut. The tragedy could stop us in our tracks. But in their memory, and in service of the wellbeing of all families, parents can reflect and reassure and also join their growing children in pursuing change.
There are no words; actions speak louder.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.