Newtown, Connecticut: Grief, meaning, and the questions before us

We wept today.heart of candles

I broke into tears when I told my partner that new information indicated that many of the children killed today at a school in Newtown, Connecticut were kindergartners. Five years old.

Friends on Facebook posted about their shock and grief and prayers sent to the families affected by the horror.

President Obama had to pause for twelve full seconds during his short address to the nation, right after he said, “The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.” Looking down, he brushed tears from his eyes.

My tears had just dried only to start again when I went to research something for this post and saw that Google had placed a tiny, somber candle underneath their search bar. Hovering my cursor over the candle, I read the words that faded into view: “Our hearts are with the families and community of Newtown, Connecticut.”

So say we all.

Grief, meaning, and the questions before us

It seems to me that there are three pressing questions that we now face:

How do we manage our grief?

How do we get perspective on this?

How do we make sure this never happens again?

Grief

Much has been said today about the parents who rushed to the school to desperately look for their children.

In near-panic, they burst into the secured firehouse and scoured the faces in front of them, hoping to find their child.

Most of them, thankfully, did.

Twenty sets of parents did not.

Our hearts break for them.

But it is not only these parents who face the ravages of grief and shock.

Death has touched so many more. The brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. The playmates and friends.

The kindly crossing guard who knew each of her charges. The cashier at the supermarket who knew that father and his son. The former students who lost a beloved principal and, possibly, favorite teachers.

The grief spreads from person to person like water finding its way across a cracked and dry desert. First in rivulets but then, as those rivulets merge together, the water becomes a stream and then a river. The grief of the parents becomes the grief of Newtown becomes the grief of a nation.

Just last week I wrote a post on the absolute and utter pain of grief and how, sometimes, you just have to go through it even if it means being knocked to your hands and knees.

And I hate it – I hate it – that so many people are on their hands and knees now.

But, as Shauna Shapiro said, “We accept our experience not because we want it, but because it is already here.”

This experience, this tragedy is here. Let grief run its healing course.

If you are surprised by the intensity of your grief right now, realize that your reaction is completely normal. How can you not grieve the senseless loss of so many young children? How can you not think, “There, but for fortune, go I?”

Death is a part of our common humanity as is the grief that accompanies it. You are sharing in our collective sorrow.

Do what you need to do to process your feelings. Perhaps it helps to talk about Newtown with a friend. We’re having a discussion on Facebook – join us there. Maybe it helps to write in a journal about how this tragedy reminds you of your own losses.

Perhaps you could create a small ritual to honor your own grief and those of your brothers and sisters in Connecticut. Light a candle. Write “Newtown, Connecticut” on a slip of paper and put it in your Bible or hold it against your heart or tuck it under your pillow.

Trauma

If you are feeling vicariously traumatized by the events in Newtown, make sure you take care of yourself. Create a space where you feel safe both physically and emotionally. Talk to trusted loved ones about your feelings.

And breathe, remember to breathe.

As you breathe in, allow the place in your body that is feeling anxious to soften. As you breathe out, let go of any judgments you are having about yourself.

This is an excellent time to practice self-compassion. You may want to take advantage of Kristin Neff’s wonderful guided meditations on her website, especially “Soften, soothe, allow.”

Anger

Acknowledge your feelings – all of them. And that includes anger.

A friend of mine emailed me and strongly encouraged me to write this post, to step up and do what I can to help.

I sent her back an expletive-laced email that exploded with anger. Not at her, but at the gunman and the situation.

I felt better afterwards.

Anger is an extremely common aspect of grief and a very normal reaction under circumstances like these.

Acknowledge it, honor it, but don’t let it overwhelm you.

We’ll talk later about productive ways to use your anger.

Perspective and meaning

Resiliency research has shown that being able to provide meaning to adversity is an essential part of being able to bounce back.

This usually involves finding a positive aspect, some silver lining to a crisis. Maybe a new opportunity arises in one area of your life when a bad thing happens in another. Or maybe the crisis begins to make sense later when you get a bigger picture of the time frame in which it occurred.

It’s going to be hard to find a silver lining here.

How do we make any sense at all of a senseless act?

Maybe we don’t right now.

Remember that meaning-making and perspective take awhile. It’s part of our human tendency to chew on things for a bit before we figure them out.

As Amy wrote on my Facebook page tonight, “I want to be in touch with my sadness and be aware of my feelings around the tragedy. I’m not ready to move on. I want to feel connected to this event as I try to make sense of what the Universe intended.”

It’s okay to not be able to figure this out yet. It’s hard because we so want to understand, we want for it to make sense. Our brains are struggling with this contradictory data that they’ve encountered.

For now, try to soften around this urge for meaning. Like Amy, allow yourself to feel connected to your feelings and the event itself, but let the meaning-making happen naturally.

I think, though, that there is one thing we need to solidify rather than soften.

The time is now

Columbine.

Virginia Tech.

Aurora.

Newtown.

No more.

The time is now.

We must not – cannot – turn away from this again.

An article in Mother Jones, accurately and sarcastically called “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America,” lists 61 – now 62 – mass murders by gunfire since 1982.

Our resiliency individually and as a nation relies on working together to solve problems.

We can blame things on Congress, or the President, or oil companies, but it boils down to what we do. What I do. What you do.

We must not let opinions about guns and gun control divide us.

As President Obama said, “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

This is the time we must unite despite our differences. We must find an answer to the terrorism of gun violence.

This is the time for compassion, empathy, and action.

If you don’t agree with your neighbor on the solution to gun violence, remember that he deserves as much compassion as you do because of your very humanity. Put yourself in his shoes and understand that he is taking responsibility for his beliefs as you are for yours.

Practice mindfulness by staying with the current issue and adopting a non-judgmental stance with people who don’t agree with you. You can disagree and still be loving and kind.

And be practical. Allow your anger to energize you to action, but don’t post vitriol on Facebook. Post ideas and solutions.

All of us, no matter our opinions on guns in America, must act now before there is more bloodshed, more grief, more trauma.

Write your Congressperson and tell her you expect action to be taken on a federal level to address this issue. Call your Senator and tell him the same thing.

Have a conversation with your friends and brainstorm how you can affect the process.

We have to figure this out. It has to stop here.

Do it for yourself.

Do it for our country.

Do it for the children.

 

It’s important that we talk about this. Let me know what you’re thinking and feeling in the comments below.

Other resources:

For a great start in processing this, see Sarah O’Leary’s terrific post “Is There Love Even Here?”

For tips on how to talk with kids about the tragedy.

Please do join us on Facebook to keep talking, processing, and problem-solving.

32 Responses to Newtown, Connecticut: Grief, meaning, and the questions before us

  1. Vidya Sury December 15, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    The tears won’t stop. And I am wondering how those connected with the victims will cope. My thoughts and prayers are with the families. How can justice ever be done?

    :-(
    Vidya Sury recently posted…Healthy Child, Happy ChildMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 15, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      I wonder, too, Vidya. The only thing that comforts me right now is I know that research has shown that most of us are naturally resilient and so most of the people directly affected by this, though stricken with grief, will be okay eventually.

      As for justice, I really believe that the best way to honor the victims is to work hard to try to prevent this type of violence. It’s a hard, thorny issue, but we must. We must.

  2. Nancy December 15, 2012 at 6:03 am #

    Bobbi, I think it makes us feel better to talk about and to believe that there can be an effective way to prevent this kind of violence. Gun control is the obvious direction to turn and it might help somewhat. But someone bent on violence will find a way. No gun? Then a bomb, a knife, a crossbow, driving a car into a crowd…..

    No one wants to hear that there’s no way to eradicate events like yesterday’s. We don’t want to feel helpless and hopeless. But there is no way. And no way to eradicate mental illness and individual crimes of passion and vengeance.

    • Bobbi December 15, 2012 at 9:34 am #

      Nancy, I hear what you are saying. But I think we can’t just wave our hands in the air and give up. While the issue about guns is only part of the answer, I think we also need to have a national discussion about mental health, about watching out for each other, about stepping in when we think something may be wrong. You’re right – people will always find a way to hurt each other. But I believe we can drastically reduce these incidents through changing social norms, somewhat like the anti-smoking campaign did.

      Let’s not give up!

  3. Judy Kukuruza December 15, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    My heart aches for the families that face empty spots in their circle of loved ones and friends this holiday season. Last night I stood looking at the night sky and thought,”There are mothers and fathers remembering that just hours ago, life was hectic or hurried due to the season and people were sending these little ones to school, feeling secure that they would be happy and safe there and then they would come home.” Some never came home. Others came home terrified that if it could happen at school, it could happen at home, too. This morning when I got up, I looked at the early morning fog and thought, “Those mothers and fathers are holding each other in their loss, not fully believing this has torn their lives apart. No child running in to turn the TV on, no messes as they try to fix their own breakfast because it is Saturday.” I ache for them. I so want to say we will make it right! But it will never be right for these people. In the meantime, to stop someone else from reaching into their minds for words said the last time they were with that person, and for those who look at empty rooms and beds, I offer the following: I will write my lawmakers, I will write my county and state mental health people, I will vote, I will protest slaughter of innocents due to lack of laws and their being enforced. I cry for your loss. But your pain has pushed me to action. May whoever or whatever you believe in comfort you! WE ALL CARE!

    • Bobbi December 15, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      Judy, that was eloquently said. Thank you so much. I have asked a friend of mine who works for Senator Cantwell of Washington State what the best way is to contact our congresspeople. I will let you know what I found out. We do care and we must act. The time is now.

  4. Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce December 15, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Thank you Bobbi for bringing just a little meaning, and a way forward, to this horrific event. Finding that love and compassion for even those who advocate free distribution of weapons that kill many in an instant… well, it’s hard to do at times like these. But you are so right – it’s about compassion, empathy, action.

    Thank you for sharing my post!
    More love!
    Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce recently posted…Is There Love Even Here?My Profile

    • Bobbi December 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      Sarah, thank you for your beautiful post. More love is the foundation we need to build our action upon.

  5. Susan Schwartz December 15, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Thank you, Bobbi, for your extraordinary ability
    to put healing hands on even the most raw and sensitive places.

    • Bobbi December 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      I’m trying, Susan, I’m trying . . .

  6. Priska December 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Around the world we are touched and crying.
    Gun laws are an obvious start.
    Your President set a fine example in displaying empathy and compassion. This filtered through to me on the other side of the world.
    I can start by developing these qualities further, as an elder, hopefully, it will filter through to the younger people I come into contact with. I will take more notice when others are hurt and stuck.
    Priska recently posted…Blogging Boomers are Blooming.My Profile

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Yes, Priska, I think it does begin with us.

  7. Jeff Keuscher December 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Whatever happened to the first phrase in the 2nd Amendment? “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” A well-regulated militia receives training, is screened for those who may have mental or emotional problems, and abides by safety and security measures. Maybe the tools to address part of this issue are already in the law.

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Jeff, I think this is one of those sentences that has been debated even since it’s been written about what it really means.

      Regarding the screening aspect, it’s really hard to accurately screen people like Adam Lanza because they can appear to be just fine in many settings.

      This is such a tough issue and I wish I had more productive ideas about it.

  8. Andrea Moss December 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Bobbi,
    Thank you for posting that wonderful, helpful and well written essay. You really got your arms around this highly charged, tragedy with some real solutions for the grief we are feeling and an appropriate call to action.

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Thanks, Andrea.

  9. Claire December 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Bobbi,
    Thank you so much for your wisdom & compassion in this post. In Australia, gun laws were really tightened after a terrible massacre at Port Arthur in Tasmania. As has been pointed out, they are only part of the problem, but nonetheless, an important part. Support and help for people with mental health issues is also vital as well, as you say.

    My heart goes out to those affected by this unthinkable tragedy. I pray that real change will occur so that there won’t be a next time.
    Claire recently posted…Lose Weight Fast Book ReviewMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      Thanks, Claire. We so appreciate the support that Newtown is receiving from around the world. Yes, we must have real change at once!

  10. Lee J Tyler December 16, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    Thanks you for this, Bobbi. It helps to write it out. And that candle brought it all forward again. I have writeen much about this and each time it has been hard; on my site and to all hose writing about it. Someone was talking about the teacher who saved her students as she told the gunman that they were in the guym. She was then guned down. Her name was Victoria and you have all heard her story. She was not a victim, this person wrote, but a hero. There are few heros for us today but it helps to remember them in tha light. I still connot talk about the children. But to reiterate your oint of action, here is where you can write to the surviving students and also, let’s not forget, the surviving staff who are mounrin the children, their co-warkers and principal. Here is the address if you wish to write a letter:: Sandy Hook Elementary School 12 Dickenson Drive Sandy Hook, CT 06482
    Lee J Tyler recently posted…The Town that Evil VisitedMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:29 am #

      Thanks, Lee, and thanks for the contact information.

  11. Jane Robinson - Art Epicurean December 16, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Bobbi, thans for this post. The day of this trajedy I put up a short post about taking action. This was a response to feeling powerless and tired of standing by watching these horrific events too often. I suggest we write our local, state and federal government asking for stricter gun control. With government legislating seat belt laws, smoking, marijuana, cell phones and driving – why in the world do we turn a blind eye to assualt weapons and no background checks for thousands of gun sales? The whole world is crying because of this senseless trajedy.
    Jane Robinson – Art Epicurean recently posted…Your creative soul – your birthrightMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:30 am #

      It is hard to feel helpless, isn’t it, Jane? I think contacting our congress people is the best first step and then it’s just really important that we keep talking about this.

  12. Amit Amin December 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Perhaps it is irresponsible of me, but I have chosen to ignore newtown. I know if I read about it, I would experience a lot of grief, and probably a lot of anger towards the gun lobby (I couldn’t help reading a short piece which suggested newtown happened because of restrictive gun laws). Yes, I know others have valid reasons for their beliefs – practicing mindfulness, compassion, and mentally reviewing what I know of cognitive biases has helped, but it’s still very hard.

    “We must not let opinions about guns and gun control divide us.”

    You’re suggesting the solution is to reduce the chances of a psychological breakdown, rather than restricting access to guns? That’s ambitious… too ambitious to move my apathy towards politics.

    But obviously our system has tremendous room for improvement. Best of luck to you and those with enough optimism to take action. You are the ones who create positive change.
    Amit Amin recently posted…Money Secret #2: Anticipate As If You’re Going to Kiss Mila KunisMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 17, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Amit, in many ways I don’t blame you for avoiding the news. I did the same thing with Katrina several years ago because I was in the midst of my own grief and couldn’t handle more.

      I don’t know what the answers are here, Amit. That’s one of the things that is frustrating me is that there are no clear courses of action. I just think it’s important to keep talking about it and not let the deep divide about gun policy prevent us from coming to solutions.

  13. Annis Cassells December 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    Thank you, Bobbi, for your thoughtful, insightful piece. Again, you show us your humanity and let us know that we, too, are okay in our thoughts of despair, grief, and anger.

    Julia Cameron says that “anger is your friend” because makes you act. As the days pass, we see more of us speaking up for doing something concrete about the issues of violence, gun control, and mental health. The devastation and enormity of Newtown and our anger about it have catapulted us into action. Now, may that action result in a safer, more peaceful world in which our families can thrive.

    Love.
    Annis Cassells recently posted…Further Travel EncountersMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 19, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      Amen, Annis!

  14. Patti December 19, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    So well said, Bobbi. You have a gift of being able to communicate on this – it has seemed to be trapped in wordless agony for me.

    Will we grieve and then fade back to “normal” life or are we willing to make real changes in our society?
    Patti recently posted…Special,Yet Low Cost GiftsMy Profile

    • Bobbi December 19, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      I know, Patti, it is hard enough to think about this tragedy let alone express it in words. Let’s not let it fade away, though, okay?

  15. Michelle O'Neil January 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    I’m so sorry for your loss and I thank you for this courageous post.

  16. Stephanie Muldberg August 3, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Take a look at this article & its focus on complicated grief. The 2009 New York Times piece examines the need for more of an effort to be paid to understanding bereavement.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/health/29grief.html?pagewanted=all

    • Bobbi August 3, 2013 at 1:02 am #

      Stephanie, thank you so much for this resource. I had not heard of Dr. Shear’s work and am really interested in looking into it further.

      And I’m so sorry for the loss of your son!

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