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?
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.
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.”
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
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.
For a great start in processing this, see Sarah O’Leary’s terrific post “Is There Love Even Here?”
Please do join us on Facebook to keep talking, processing, and problem-solving.
This was meant to be a commercial, but it’s oh-so-much-more. Check out the resilience of these old men as they decide to live life rather than avoid death.
I asked Rebecca Phillips to follow up on my last post by telling her own story of the day that forever changed her life.
Twelve years ago, I thought my life was over. Certainly, life as I had known it was over. What had befallen my family was worse than any tragedy I could have imagined at the time: my mother, father, sister, and close family friend, off on a cross-country trip, had been killed in a train crash.
I remember it like it was yesterday: the phone jangled us awake at 4:30 a.m., a good hour earlier than my alarm was set. Bill answered: “Hello? Oh, no! Thanks. Bye.” He said, “That was your sister. Your parents’ train has derailed.” He turned on the television to CNN, where we saw the wreckage. The night before, Train 59, the City of New Orleans, had encountered a semi-truck on the crossing near Bourbonnais, IL. The truck made it through the crossing, but the train struck the trailer, which was loaded with re-bar. The re-bar acted like ball bearings on the tracks, causing the two-engine train to leave the track, strike a siding car, and accordion into a fiery mess. At the time, nobody knew how many were injured or killed, but as soon as I saw the TV, I knew. I knew in my heart they were gone.
The worst of the worst
There are many holes in my memory of that time; I attribute that to the shock of the tragedy. Several of us flew out to Illinois to deal with the situation there. The national media pounced on the story and followed it for days. Suddenly we were on television and on the front page of newspapers. Details blur together. What I do remember is the kindness shown to my family and me over and over again, in the village of Bourbonnais and in our home town.
My remaining siblings and I spent weeks cleaning out our family home; it was hard to realize that my parents would never live there again. The youngest of seven children, I had always relished my role as the baby of the family, and I had a close relationship with my parents and siblings. Now, I felt lost. One-third of my family was gone. My parents, who had guided me through the hard times in my life, could not help me through this, the worst of the worst.
Well-meaning friends and relatives did not know how to approach me anymore. Likewise, I didn’t know what to say to them. No, I wasn’t fine. I still spent time at the cemetery, looking for some kind of comfort. I still burst into tears at any little thing. I still felt a terrible weight on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe. I still didn’t sleep well, and I ate to feed my broken heart. My grief was exhausting, both mentally and physically.
Sometimes life hands you a new normal
I’ll be first to admit I could not face this journey on my own. I am forever grateful for my husband’s loving patience and understanding. I leaned heavily on my sisters, who mothered me in their own ways. I started a journal. I prayed and wept all the time. I spent two years under a therapist’s care, and I used prescription antidepressants. Still, I had nightmares on a regular basis, I rarely went out of my house, and I wondered if I would ever be normal again. I felt I was falling apart, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
What I discovered, after I had spent some time on this path, is that sometimes, life hands you a new normal and expects you to deal with it. Sometimes, you just have to keep moving. At some point, I realized that my children needed their mother, and my husband needed his wife. I needed to be needed again. Slowly, I felt myself come back. I smiled more often. I could talk about my parents and sister without dissolving into tears. I looked less into the past and more into the present. I vowed to teach my young sons all about the family they lost. In my newfound feelings of resolve, I found hope. I was not the same, but I was going to be okay.
All along, my sisters and I had discovered blessings that had come from the tragedy. Our parents, who had recently celebrated 55 years of marriage, died as they had lived — together. Our faith assured us they were in Heaven. Our sister who died was the only one of us who would leave no spouse or children behind. Beloved friends and family who had lost touch over the years now contacted us because of our loss. People recounted inspiring stories of love and encouragement – my parents and Wendy had touched so many!
Life is good
I like to say that grief is a great and terrible teacher. Most of us live our lives as if nothing can touch us. When death comes to us in some way, we realize how foolish we were. Suddenly we are faced with despair; the lessons are hard, but they help us grow. I would not wish this on anyone, but in some ways, I am glad to have gone through it. I cherish my life and loved ones as never before, and I feel more compassionate toward others.
I believe I am stronger, but at the same time, I am also a little more fearful. I now know that those things we think will ‘never happen to me’ can, and do happen. I walked that path, and by the grace of God and the people around me, I made it through. The grief that would destroy me has instead shaped me into a better person.
My family talks about life in terms of before and after the crash. Two distinct periods separated by one horrible event. It was an ugly time, and I really thought I might never recover. But I did, and I’m here to say that despite its struggles, life is good.
A tale of tragedy, grief, love and joy told in snippets.
Facebook post, February 26, 2011
On this day in 1944, my young parents were married. After Dad came home from the war, they were rarely apart. My parents held hands and danced in the kitchen. They approached life with a healthy dose of humor and common sense. After 55 years of living together, they died together.
Happy anniversary in Heaven to Ma and Pa. Always in my heart and in my dreams.
I’ll see you again…
“Do you remember Becky Vant?” my mom asked as we chatted on the phone.
“Of course! She was one of my best friends in junior high until she went to that other high school in the district,” I teased. “I haven’t seen her in years. Why do you bring her up?”
“This is just awful,” Mom began, “Becky’s parents and her sister Wendy were all killed in a train accident in Illinois a few days ago.”
“Oh my god . . . what happened?”
“A semi-truck drove onto the tracks and the train crashed into it. No one knows all the details yet.”
“I can’t believe it! I wish I knew where Becky was so I could talk with her.”
Becky finds me on Facebook. Now Rebecca Phillips, married and with kids of her own, we catch up on the past twenty-five years and then our messages turn to our shared experience of grief.
Becky, I write, my grief after losing Ruth was so much more difficult than I ever thought it would be. How did you ever make it through after the train accident?
Oh, Bobbi, it was so hard, Becky responded. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t work, couldn’t take care of my kids . . . Somehow, between my faith and the love of those around me, I’ve made it this far. But I still think about my parents and Wendy every day.
Facebook post, February 27, 2011
Becky responds after receiving 25 comments on her post
Thank you all. Every day of my life, I become more and more convinced that I am one of the luckiest people around, because I have an amazing family and a phenomenal group of friends. I love your stories and I appreciate all of your generosity and love.
Life is good.
In loving memory of Vergil, Leona, and Wendy Vant. Your “lucky” daughter and sister continues to teach us that, even after tragedy, life is good.
When I logged on to the Internet this morning, my news channel home page confronted me with this headline in large font: “Killer of mom, 2 daughters gets death sentence.” Ugh, I thought, how awful on so many levels. As I read on, I was horrified to learn the details of the case. In 2007, two men broke into the Connecticut home of William and Jennifer Petit. They severely beat William, strangled Jennifer, and killed the couple’s two daughters by tying them to their beds, then setting the house on fire. The girls died of asphyxiation. William somehow managed to escape and is the only survivor.
I began to wonder about William. How has he been able to manage his loss and the memories of that awful night? Even with my utter belief in the power of the human spirit and resiliency, I could not see how he could come back from this nor could my shocked mind find any gifts in this horrendous event.
O, me of little faith.
I ran an Internet search on William Petit. Among the many articles about the murders, a link popped up that said “Petit Family Foundation.” I clicked on the link, and as the site opened, I gasped. The site, which emanates light and love, is centered on a slideshow of the Petit family before the tragedy. My gasp, however, came from the quote next to the slideshow: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mohandas Gandhi.
How could this be? How could William Petit have the presence of mind and heart to create this foundation of change from such an act of evil? I read further on the website:
The PETIT FAMILY FOUNDATION website is designed to provide a complete portrait of who we are, what we do and why it is important to continue the memories of JENNIFER HAWKE-PETIT, HAYLEY ELIZABETH PETIT and MICHAELA ROSE PETIT. They were taken from us far too soon, but we are determined to honor their memories and to continue their many acts of kindness and activism.
With your help we can promote opportunity for young women, continue the fight against chronic illness and extend a blanket of comfort for others affected by violence. A change for the better does not just happen. We need each and every one of you to help fulfill our mission; you will all help to be the changes that JENNIFER, HAYLEY, and MICHAELA wanted to see in the world.
The PETIT FAMILY FOUNDATION tries to do as many good actions as possible to counteract the evil that truly exists in the world today. We feel that we all must make a commitment to do what we can to make this world a better place.
Incredibly, William Petit, his father, and other family members have taken this horrific incident in their lives and are making sure only good comes of it. They are living the change that they want to see in the world.
William is a long way from being completely healed. He told a reporter, “It’s a hole with jagged edges,” he said. “Over time the edges may smooth out a little bit, but the hole in your heart, the hole in your soul is always there.” Although he may never experience the total healing for which his soul longs, William has made the conscious choice to bring light to the dark, healing the wounds of so many others around him.
May the edges of that hole in your heart grow smoother every day, William Petit, my new resiliency hero.
I really like this theme of bounce. I like the image of a ball bouncing along its path, sometimes hitting something hard, yet bouncing back up into the air, free. However, as I’ve been writing these blogs, I realize that I have been talking mostly about people who have bounced back up after hitting a hard spot. And they seem to do it quickly. Although I know we all have the capacity to be resilient, sometimes bouncing back up takes a long time.
I played basketball when I was younger and occasionally even now I enjoy going out and shooting some baskets. I love the feel of the leather and the springy sound of the ball as it hits the pavement and jumps into my waiting hands. If I haven’t played for awhile, though, sometimes I get the ball out of the garage and when I push it down for that first eagerly-anticipated bounce, it produces a dull thud and lies there on the pavement. No air. The ball is totally flat.
Life can be like that, too. Several years ago, after my partner died, I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of me. The joyful life I had led with her had suddenly gone flat. And I could not get back up. For a long time.
I tried to pump myself with air by resting frequently, talking with loving friends, and working on the little house that I loved. My bounce would come back for awhile, but it was kind of like a ball that’s not quite full of air. You bounce it hard at first and it jumps up to the right spot but then slowly the bounces get lower and lower and lower until the ball is flat on the pavement again. It just seemed like I would never get my bounce back. I had no idea grief would be that hard.
To be honest, it’s taken me several years to get my bounce back. And occasionally I still feel like I’ve lost some air and am just dribbling along the ground. But now I know that I will get pumped up again. With the perspective of years, I have a better idea of how to fill myself with air. I know I still need rest, loving friends, and lots of new projects to stimulate me, but most of all, I need the patience to know that sometimes it just takes time to get filled back up and be able to bounce again.
I hope that you are not at a flat spot in your life. But if you are, try not to judge where you are right now. It’s just a part of life. To slowly start pumping yourself up, talk with people who have walked your same path. And remember that it may take time, but someday you’ll bounce up into the air again, free.
Our dog, Vinnie, died last week. He wasn’t very old, only 7. He died of a very aggressive kind of lymphoma. He was Andrea’s dog and I was his adopted “aunt.” Our hearts were breaking the day we took him to the vet to help him start the next part of his journey. Afterwards, we cried and talked about Vinnie and how weird it felt to be without him, to be driving home with his empty crate in the back of the van.
I thought out loud about how I wanted to put his picture up on Facebook with an announcement about his passing. I asked Andrea for a good picture of him to post as well as to use for a sign in front of our driveway a la Rosie. After listening to my plans for a bit, Andrea quietly said, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.” She went on to say that she would like to notify her close friends individually before the news was made public and she wasn’t sure when she would feel like doing that.
I suddenly realized this was the first loss we had experienced together. I had assumed her way of grieving was like mine: Tell everyone right away so I can get the emotional support I need. But hers is very different. She needs to have her own space and honor her own timing about who she tells and when.
I shared my realization about our different responses to loss and we came up with a compromise. She was fine with my public announcements, but only after she had contacted those people in her inner circle. She would do this within the next few days and let me know when it was okay for me to go ahead with my plans. And she did.
I was really glad it had dawned on me that not only was Andrea’s style different than mine, but that neither was a “better” way than the other. Together, we have honored each other’s needs for healing. I wish the same for you when you share a loss with another.
In memoriam: “Montana” Vinnie, Dark Knight Forever My Heart
Rest in peace, little man.
My partner and I are trying to prepare ourselves for the death of our dog, Vinnie, who has cancer. It has me thinking about how to honor and experience grief in a healthy and resilient way. The other day I was pondering this as I was driving home. Even though I was somewhat on automatic pilot as I drove, lost in my thoughts, something caught my eye. There was a poster taped up to a street sign near our home. I slowed to look at it:
Rosie, the friendly yellow lab that accompanied everyone on their walks around the neighborhood. The family was sharing the news with neighbors who knew and loved Rosie. But, more than that, they chose to share their grief with the community.
What a wonderful way to start the healing process. Sharing the joy of love and the pain of grief at the same time with others. A small public ritual to mark the end of Rosie’s journey and the beginning of mourning for the family.
I cut some roses from our garden and taped them to the post above the sign. I wanted to join the ritual, honor Rosie, and help comfort the family.
Perhaps when Vinnie’s time comes, we, too, will create a small ritual to honor him and start our own healing process, a very slow but steady bounce back to joy and peace.
Those of you who have received my newsletter for awhile may be wondering what happened to my discussions about grief and thoughts on caregiving. Am I tossing them in favor of resiliency? Not at all. In fact, resiliency is a healing concept that works very well with both grief and the challenges of caregiving.
Let’s look at grief within the context of resilience. Physicists use the term resilience to describe “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” (Merriam Webster.) From the Latin resilire, resilience literally means “to recoil” or “jump back.” Thus, the concept of bouncing back from adversity.
However, when you’re grieving, the idea of “bouncing back” seems a little too chipper and upbeat. As I’ve written about previously, the spiral nature of grief can last for a long time. So, while you may not bounce back immediately from grief, using and increasing your resiliency skills can help you not only “recover your shape” but also move forward as a stronger and more confident person beyond your loss.
Similarly, caregivers need to learn and exercise resiliency to keep themselves healthy and happy while they are caring for their loved ones. The ability to ask others for help, being open to exploring the idea of acceptance, and learning from the journey are all aspects of resilience from which caregivers can benefit.
There will be more about these ideas in later posts. I’m looking forward to exploring grief and caregiving within the healing framework of resilience with you.