How do you celebrate the holidays in the wake of a national tragedy? How do you find life in the midst of carnage too horrible to imagine? While the governor of Connecticut suggested that his state would "get through" the killing spree, which took the lives of 20 small children and seven adults (including the shooter), there is an even more important point that must not be missed. In all due respect, it is not the government that is left at the grave site and afterward; it is the individual, the mommy, the daddy, the sister and brother, the grandmother and grandpa, the aunts and uncles, and this doesn't even begin to name the friends. When our babies are taken from us through acts of violence, it inflicts upon the survivors a particular kind of suffering for which there are no words. And, just as true, the trauma runs so deep, that those of us who know the mourners can find ourselves awkward, hesitant, fearful that, despite our well-meaning attempt to comfort, our words and actions might "make it worse."
Here's what you need to know, from the perspective of a parent who has lost their child from a catastrophic act of violence. Having been through it myself some decades ago, allow me to share what might be useful, a GPS for heart and soul during these tragic times:
1. You cannot make it worse. I promise. The worst has already happened. Your love can only make it better. Community counts. Outreach bridges the pain.
2. You need not be profound. What bereft parents need, more than anything, is "real." Forget clever sayings. Forget saying things like "Johnny or Susie is in a better place." This is not comforting.
3. Stay focused on what matters. What matters is that the family is left with the empty chair, the empty bed where their child so recently was. What comforts is acknowledgement of this. Telling the truth with a focused statement, such as "I cannot imagine what you must be going through," makes you trustworthy. No one will ever fill the empty chair or replace the lost.
4. Keep it simple. It is more than enough to say: "There are no words." An authentic outreach, with words like these, means the world.
5. Do NOT tell your story. This is not the time. Forget about the temptation to tell about the time Aunt Tilly died, or Uncle Ralph. Each death is different and deserves its focus. There is no way we can appreciate the particulars for our friend in grief. We are not they.
6. Be a safe place "to land," when the casseroles and cards stop coming. Parents and families who grieve the loss of their child have had their entire lives change in a heartbeat. Nothing will ever be the same. Be the one who offers to meet for a coffee or cup of tea, just to listen. What you hear is far more important than what you say. Traumatic loss is especially complicated. The imagery of the details runs again and again through the mind and takes a long, long time to ease. Be patient. PTSD does not even begin to cover what the bereaved confront.
7. Be the one who remembers. Record the date and year of the death and birthday. Record the child's whole name and birth date. Remember these dates and honor them in the coming years. Believe me: Very, very few people will remember. Be the one who refuses to forget, and thereby be the one to honor the fact that this child once lived and shall always live in the family heart. One of my dearest friends pointed out to me such a remembrance: The first Christmas after my son was gone, Janie put an ornament on her tree for Matt. Inside a blue satin tiny box, she placed his graduation card. She has placed that box on her tree for the past 21 years. Sixteen years later when their oldest son died suddenly, I found a pewter angel, put Ted's name on it, for our tree. Friendship is a mutual exchange. We do not have to "climb into the grave" to remember, but can grow through the grief with clear and good intention.
8. Be there for the duration. Remember birthdays, death dates and holidays. All that you need to do is let your friend know that you are thinking of them on this particular day and sending love. This is plenty.
For those of you who do not personally know the family, or the child who died, but would like to make a difference, consider the following, and follow your own instinct:
1. Turn off the repeated, recycled coverage in the news. You've heard the story. Time to get into mindfulness. Turn within. Listen to your heart. Pay special attention to children around you. Offer creative materials for them to express themselves when they are small, if they are aware of what has transpired.
2. Tune into some act of kindness you might like to do in the name of the child.
3. Do this act without needing recognition or credit.
4. Write down the names of the children lost, so the awareness is specific. Make a memorial through some simple act of beauty. If you have a holiday tree, perhaps a simple ornament in their name. If you do not, perhaps hanging seeds for the birds in winter. Enter life shared more deeply with all sentient beings.
5. If it seems right, contact the parents in time, and let them know your heart is with them, even though you have not met.
6. Refrain from making suggestions. Unless you have been through this yourself, a suggestion may seem insensitive.
7. Consider getting involved in whatever cause you believe would promote the well-being of other children in the name of the child/children who died.
8. Love a child today. Become a guardian of the good. Notice children around and appreciate what is special. Celebrate the moment of that child's well being.
9. Thank a parent today for the gift of their child in the world.
10. Leave fear of self-consciousness, uncertainty, and your vulnerability at the door. Risk love, praise, and gratitude for what you have been given.
11. Send love to every parent and every child you see in silence.
12. Cultivate gratitude for life. Become its steward.
Love letter to you, the parent, who have lost your child so tragically:
I remember. I remember you. I remember your child. Although we have never met, I have met such a time. And how vividly I recall the shock, the disbelief, the numbing, the reaction that this could not have happened to your baby. How hard, if not impossible, right now to take in the enormity of what has happened. In fact, it is not possible to take in what has changed everything for you, for your family, for your child. Who could have imagined, when you awoke this morning, that such an earthquake would crack open your heart? That last moment when you saw your child alive, who could have predicted it would be the last? If we could have known, oh so many things we might have said, might have done, the other sorts of choices we might have made.
But we did not know at the time. And that is the point. You did your best. Sure, there may have been so many other things on your mind as you said goodbye, but one thing is certain, and your child, deep down, knew it. You loved your child. Still do. Your child knew they were loved, as well.
No one can give meaning to such a terrible act of violence that ended your baby's life. No one can, because such a thing lacks all apparent meaning. The trick is to find a way to navigate what seems impossible.
I will not insult you with a lie. There are hard, hard times ahead. There will be days and nights that you will lose your bearings, and days when it seems unimaginable to make it through the hours when your heart is broken and you feel that terrible emptiness.
But, what I want you to know, as well, is that through the crack in the cosmos, which has broken your heart, new life will come again, in completely different ways. If you wish, an awareness will come that may help you deepen your appreciation for what you have had through your child and what you can offer as a testimonial and memorial to the gift of your child's life here on Earth.
Most of all, please remember you are not alone. You are now traveling the path my African friends call "The Land of the Gray Cloud." Love is with you. All the tears swallowed, and those bravely shed are a testimonial to this fact. Love is making itself known to us, the bereaved, as never before. Peace be with you.
Be the love you wished for your child,
Your Turn: What would you like to express to the bereaved of these children and adults just lost in our country this day? Remember, the adults who were killed were somebody's "baby," too, somebody's mommy or daddy or kin. I'm listening! Thank you for forwarding this.
For more information on grieving, see my archives on HuffPost and/or carabarker.com. Also available through Sounds True is "Grieving the Loss of a Child," which many have found helpful.
A special note to frequent readers: I will return to HuffPost on January 2, 2013. Wishing you and yours a most meaningful holiday season filled with love and beautiful moments of connection.
For more by Dr. Cara Barker, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.