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When Children Die and It's Incomprehensible, How We Move Forward as a Society

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Almost twenty years ago, in February of 1993, my daughter was a toddler and sometimes hard to keep track of in stores if I took my eyes off her for a second, as all parents occasionally do. Around that time I lost her in Gymboree at the mall for perhaps 10 minutes because she was playing hide-and-seek in the circular turnstiles of clothing and not responding to my increasingly frantic calls. But she eventually came out laughing and I had the moment many parents have when they are angry and deeply relieved, and I hugged her and admonished her at the same time.

That same month, three thousand miles away in Liverpool, England, another mother, with a toddler the same age as my daughter, took her eye off him for a moment also, but the outcome was very different. What the security camera later showed was two 10-year-old boys guiding the little two-year-old boy by the hand out of the store. They dragged him crying for over two and a half miles to an isolated stretch of railroad track. They bashed his skull in with bricks and rocks and left his body across the track where it was sliced in half by the next passing train.

Two different toddlers, two different mothers, two different countries, two different malls, two very different outcomes.

For those of you who remember this horrific event in England, you will also remember that the only way to hear about it was to watch the television news, to listen to talk radio, or to read actual newspapers. There was no social media world to amplify the story or to allow people to discuss it across state lines and country borders. To me, there seemed no way to feel either better about it or worse about it because there was no immediate and communal way of processing it the way we have now with the internet, for better or for worse.

To this day, I remember how it felt to so badly to want to talk about this story in England and the incident with my daughter and the depth of my pain for that mother in Liverpool, who I could relate to only in the most superficial way and through the most eviscerating survivor's guilt.

There was no one to talk to in my daily life.

Oh, there was my husband and there were relatives and plenty of friends raising children the same age who had all heard the story about the poor little boy in England. But when I tried to talk about it, the responses seemed to cluster in either of two ways:

1) "Don't talk about that. It's so depressing. I don't want to think about it."


2) "Why would you want to talk about that? It's morbid. You shouldn't think about it."

This left me quite isolated. I remember writing a lot, but the interactive blogging I love today didn't exist. I've been the head of a school, a teacher, a school psychologist, and a parent. This massacre in Connecticut hit me hard from every conceivable direction.

Today I have an entire online community of people who have the same proclivities as me at times like these to read, write, analyze, share, learn, catalyze... and who feel others' pain deeply but somehow believe that the ability to let it in, and then move past it to action, is what inspires collective effort among citizens to help prevent future tragedy. I don't worry about being morbid anymore. I am more concerned that I not have my eyes wide shut because denial does not work for me. It feels good in small doses, but then somehow, I don't know, I just want to connect.

So now, twenty years after I first started wondering about why so many people react so differently than me to tragic events that happen in the world, and as I see the same dynamic at play once again following the massacre of 20 school children and six adults in Connecticut, I can make some observations:

  1. Denial and carefully limited self-exposure to upsetting news are personal survival mechanisms many people need in our 24/7 media saturated world. I get it, am OK with it, and am glad I now have a way to communicate with people who need the opposite for their emotional survival.
  2. When children die, it is easiest when the parents can somehow be blamed. Bethany Bateman wrote this extremely moving article about the recent death of another two-year-old child, who accidentally tumbled out of his mother's arms into a zoo exhibit of wild dogs that killed the child in seconds. The online mauling that mother received was particularly vicious because, I think, it let those anonymous commenters reframe bad luck as bad parenting, allowing them to believe it could therefore never happen to them.
  3. When innocent young children die senselessly, and not by parental neglect or abuse, as these 20 elementary school children in Connecticut died by semiautomatic assault weapons while simply being in school, just where they were supposed to be, people rush to pinpoint exactly how society has caused this tragedy. There are now dozens if not hundreds of articles discussing everything from the need for more gun control to lack of mental health services to lack of praying to God in public schools to persistent young white male violence to not enough people being armed within schools, and so many other "reasons" that might help individuals make sense of the tragedy within their own political and religious frame of reference.
  4. While there is no widespread agreement on the causes or solutions to this massacre, everyone seems to be able to agree that it should not have happened, and should never happen again.
  5. Not enough people are involved in the process of creating change, though many are stakeholders, in this instance as American parents of children who could be next. That thought -- that heart-wrenching, gut-churning idea that your own child could be next -- has no political party. But whatever your ideological views, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

This brings me back full circle to No. 1. Is it OK to tune out news like this tragic school shooting while expecting that others will create the change you want to see in the world? Mahatma Gandhi had an opinion on that, and I share it.

Here's the thing: It's getting crazier out there. I know, I know, you don't want to hear it. It does tend to interfere with enjoying a fun life and remaining sane -- for sure. But what is the alternative? If not you, who? If not now, when?

Most people tell me they are too busy, as if I'm not, as if everyone making time to work on some kind of positive change isn't. Being "busy" has become one of the most disingenuous and abused adjectives of the 21st century. Yes, indeed, we are all very busy.

But we have a lot of work to do in this country to make it safer, healthier, more compassionate, and more just... for all of us.

Now is a time to grieve, but it is also a time to act. Who's with me?

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