In a few more days, all 20 of those children in Newtown will be buried. The six adults killed will be laid to rest. Elsewhere, children will be home for the holidays. Moms will get busy baking, wrapping and shopping. In addition to our usual responsibilities, we will occupy ourselves with the joys and distractions of the holiday season. And we will move on.
Most human beings have a weird, yet totally normal way of coping with trauma -- especially when we are bystanders to things that happen on a national level. Psychologically, we tend to go through a three-part process.
• First, we inundate ourselves with images -- many of us become obsessed with details, trying to understand how something so horrible could possibly happen. We try to figure out why. We are hungry for information, desperate for understanding. Yes, very normal.
• Second, we become overwhelmed, saturated, exhausted. We resent Anderson Cooper and blame network news for the non-stop coverage. We declare that we are going to "go off the grid" only to come back hours or a day later to see if we missed anything. Again, very normal.
• Finally, we distance ourselves. It's basic psychology. When horrible, terrible and unpredictable things happen, we feel emotionally overwhelmed. Then, we find ways to tell ourselves, "this can't happen to us" and then we start listing the reasons. In order to avoid painful thoughts and feelings, we start to figure out how trauma can't touch us (and if it's already touched us, why it can't possibly happen again). For example, we distance from sexual assault ("If it's real rape, the body has a way of shutting down.") even though the prevalence is so high. We do it with domestic violence ("Only poor women are abused") even though we know the numbers. We distance ourselves from senseless violence ("I live in a totally safe neighborhood") even though we see the crime reports from our cities and towns. Again, it's normal. In fact, in the short-term, distancing and avoiding painful thoughts and feelings is very functional. How else will we keep moving on with our lives? How else will we decorate that tree and wrap those gifts? How else can we get our children off to school without them seeing our tears?
The only problem with avoidance is that it only works in the short-term. In the long-term, it fails miserably. We are now at the point that we have a mass shooting in the United States every two weeks. Barely enough time to inundate ourselves with images, become saturated and distance ourselves. There are cracks in our denial. And for every parent, every mother out there, there are 20 little cracks in that armor of denial -- 20 images that we are having trouble forgetting. We are having trouble distancing and personally, I think the time for distancing is over. Instead, I'm suggesting a different psychological path in the wake of Sandy Hook.
• Turn off the television. Go off the grid. Sure, stop reading this article for now if you feel overwhelmed.
• Mourn. Light a candle and shed some tears. Have dinner with other parents and ask each other miserably, "How in the world can we raise children in this kind of world?" Give each other comfort and hugs. Rejoice in the everyday routines of the holiday season.
• Then, instead of distancing yourself emotionally, get active. Once we are calm and collected, we may become overwhelmed with the complexity of each of these tragedies. Is it lack of mental health care? Is it easy access to semi-automatic weapons? Is it violent video games that de-sensitize some kids who are already vulnerable? The truth is, if each parent decided to focus on one issue and chip away at it -- not just today, next week, or next year -- but in a sustained way, we could truly make the world better for our children. If you think the problem is access to mental health care, write letters, educate and be a voice in your community. If you think the issue is easy access to weapons meant to hunt humans, post a Facebook status once a day with petitions concerned moms can sign to get sensible gun laws on the books. If you think video games contribute, start a block club for kids after-school -- where they can cook and play board games instead of sitting home alone in front of the TV. The possibilities to make a change are endless and energizing.
When we become overwhelmed with our feelings, we go into denial and we become paralyzed. But we also have the ability to become more powerful than we ever imagined. If every parent, every mother, tried to do something -- in a sustained, tireless way- - we can make this world better for our kids. We can create a safer, saner world. Believe me, the images of those little ones are haunting me too. But let's not distance ourselves from them. Let's not wait for the next mass shooting. Let's sit with our sorrow and then emerge more determined than we ever have to make a difference in their little lives.