Five days have passed and I am still finding it nearly impossible to comprehend the events of 12/14 in Newtown, Conn. I am an experienced clinical social worker who specializes in the treatment of psychological trauma, yet I am still at a loss in understanding what happened on that hideous day.
When working with a client in therapy to help them heal from a traumatic event, one of my goals is to help them create a coherent narrative about what happened. A coherent narrative is essentially a story that makes sense.
A coherent narrative is one of the things that helps us to integrate new information with what we already know, so that we can heal and move on.
For example, if I were working with a little girl who is stuck in grief six months after her beloved grandmother died, we would write a story about what happened. In this example, her grandmother lived with the family, and cared for the girl while her parents were at work. Her parents would be invited in to help her write the story about how much the little girl loved her grandma, and how much the grandma loved her. We would include in the story the things they used to like to do together, like going to the park and making cookies. The story would continue with the grandmother getting sick, the girl visiting grandmother in the hospital, grandmother dying, and the girl attending the funeral. Perhaps we might end the story with a drawing of something that grandma gave to the girl, an object that the child can keep to remember her with.
This would help the child process her grief so that she can be free to be a child again, while still retaining memories of her beloved. Psychologically, she has successfully internalized her grandmother's love so it stays with her.
The Newtown tragedy continues to trouble me personally, and us collectively, because it is so difficult to formulate a coherent narrative around the events of that day.
Why has it been so difficult to do so? Perhaps it is because it is just too tragic. Perhaps it is because too many innocents died. Perhaps it is so difficult for me personally because it hits too close to my home in Milford, Conn.
Or maybe, just maybe, the reason I am not able to form a coherent narrative around these events is because there is none. This story does not make sense, no matter which angle you view it from. Perhaps there will be continue to be no coherent narrative until the laws are changed about what kind of firearms individuals are allowed to own.
The idea that a potentially mentally unstable young man could so easily obtain the weapons necessary to kill so many innocents in so little time makes no sense. The idea that his mother could legally own an assault rifle capable of killing so many in so little time makes no sense. The idea that the rights of a few outweigh the rights of the rest of us makes no sense. There is no coherence here, and that is why my brain can't integrate this new information.
How do you help a child who has suffered a loss?
Right now in Newtown, parents are struggling with what to say to their children. What might you say to a child, for example, who lost a classmate in this situation? To help them form a coherent narrative, the story must first and foremost be true. Children are experts at reading non-verbal communication, and most of our communication is non-verbal. If you doubt their expertise in this, think about how your child often knows when to push (or when not to push) for a later bedtime, or a coveted toy.
It is of paramount importance that the information you do share is true. If the information you give them is not true they will notice that your words and body language don't match. They will sense its incongruence, which will just confuse them.
The information should be tailored to their age and developmental level. Older children generally need more information than younger children. It is not necessary to tell them everything. It is wiser to leave out gory details.
An excellent example of a coherent message is what first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig said to her students, who were in hiding with her in a barricaded bathroom. She told her students, "We have to be absolutely quiet. There are bad guys are out there now, and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out."
It is perfectly crafted because it was true, it was in their benefit to receive that information at that time, and the language was tailored to fit what children of that age could comprehend.
So, one might say to a child who lost a classmate in the tragedy that something truly awful has happened. Don't sugarcoat this. They already know that something awful has happened. The surviving children are reading the trauma that is registering on the faces of many of the adults that they encounter.*
It is better to tell them what really happened because in the absence of accurate information the children might imagine a story that is even worse.
You might say something like this: "A very disturbed man came to the school and killed some children and the grown-ups who were trying to protect them. Nobody knows why he did this. It is a mystery to the grown-ups, who are all trying very hard to understand what happened.
"The good guys came to help as soon as they could. They were able to save most of the people in the school. But not everybody survived. Some children, and some grown-ups, died.
"The grown-ups know that it is their job to protect children, and everybody who hears about this is very sad because in this case it just wasn't possible. They are all heartbroken, and very sorry for what has happened.
"The grown-ups know that what happened is not acceptable. They know that this must never happen again, so they are doing everything possible to make sure that this will not happen again."
The only way I can formulate a coherent narrative about this tragedy is if all of us, collectively, use this event as a catalyst for change. If this event results in a changes in how firearms are regulated in this country, and a change in how much tolerance we have for all forms of violence in our society, then -- and only then -- will this story make sense to me.
*based on the work of Peter G. Sandwell, M.D.
For more by Sloan Gorman, LCSW, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.