Our Church is collecting and distributing stuffies to the kids affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. My daughter, who lost a friend in the shooting, chose a cute baby giraffe. A few minutes later she looked at my wife and said, “I’m calling her ‘Hope.’ And every time I squeeze her, I’m going to think of my friend Emilie.” Several of her friends made similar choices with their stuffed animals. One girl, a student at the school, named hers “Comfort.” Another named hers “Peace.”
“Her laughter was infectious,” Parker said. “All those who had the pleasure to meet her would agree that this world has been a better place because she has been in it.”
I’ve heard a fair number of adults say something akin to this, “Thank God, at that age they don’t really get it.” I’m not sure I’m seeing the same thing. From what I observe in my own daughter, and in the stories of her friends who were there, they “get it” on a level none of us can thoroughly understand. They may not process it like we do, or feel the exact same feelings. But I can assure you, kids’ bright young minds create an understanding more profound than any of us can imagine.
Heather knew one friend, and one former classmate on the list.* In the past two days, she has been as distracted, and seemingly numb, like the rest of us. Yet, she’s showing loving kindness, sensitivity, and support to her six- and seven-year old friends, and they are giving it right back- boys and girls alike. Last night, for example, they picked out their stuffies, played together for a while, and then stood together in the cold at the candlelight vigil our senior pastor put together with the Monroe Clergy Association. One moment 100% kids, the next, 100% something different.
For Heather, faith has been real.
- Her friend Emilie is in Heaven. Thank God for that.
- Her best buddy hid in a closet with two other friends. Her cousin hid in the music room. They are alive. Thank God for that too.
I don’t think she quite understands what kind of person would do a thing like this, or why. But I don’t think any of us adults understand that either.
When the time came to talk to her about it, Heather’s godmother, an LCSW, had some really helpful advice. All of it turned out to be right on target.
- Get down on her level. Speak to her eye to eye. (We sat together on the floor.)
- She’ll remember the FIRST and the LAST thing she hears, so make the FIRST thing about how she is safe, how her parents are safe, and how schools ARE safe places. If you can, add a list of friends who are also safe. (We were able to say this for some, and not for others.)
- Speak in simple terms, and avoid graphic details. Tell the truth – don’t hide it. After assuring her, we described it as a “Bad, crazy man came in to the school with a gun and hurt a whole lot of people. Some of them died, and some children went to heaven today to be with God.” (If you can’t quite hold it together while saying that, say it anyway. There is no easy way to get that one out.)
- Hold your kid. If your family practices a faith, say a prayer together. If you haven’t prayed together in a long time, now is as good a time as any to get back into the habit.
- Let your child ask questions. Some will come right away, others at odd times. This will depend on when and how your child processes it. Answer them honestly. Don’t hide anything.
- Expect to see your child “playing” the tragedy with his/her toys. This is NORMAL, and in no way trivializes the events. It is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE. This is sometimes how a young mind processes these horrors. (Anyone recall little ones building lego towers and knocking them down in the months after 9/11? It’s the same thing. Little ones grieve differently, but they grieve.)
- Don’t watch TV news too much. We all can “hyper-focus” on this. That doesn’t help.
- Seek help – for your child and yourself. You’re going to want to be strong – that’s what parents do. But in order to stay strong, you need to actively seek and utilize your support network. Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re being weak. It means you’re being smart.
Yes, a piece of our child’s innocence has been torn from them at too young an age. But it has been replaced by a simple wisdom that would serve us all well. In the days to come all of us grown-ups in Sandy Hook will teach our children about wakes and funerals, about healing, about moving on, and if it is in our practice, about faith in difficult times. But we will also see the love of family, friends, and community. We will remember the friends we lost, and in turn love the ones we still have just a little bit more. Thank you, beautiful children, for teaching us that.
*Our daughter is home schooled this year, but for personal reasons. That is the only reason she was home when it happened. She attended Sandy Hook Elementary for kindergarten last year, and it was a phenomenal experience. SHS was a great place, Dawn Hochsprung a phenomenal educator, and the teachers were fantastic even before they became world renowned heroes.
I have elected NOT to publish images of children in this post. This is out of respect for the parents, many of whom have told me that they wished the news hadn’t plastered their kids’ faces all over the internet without their permission.