Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on Tragedy

Photo credit: newsnet5.com

Every parent and every educator, everyone who works with children in any capacity, is no doubt projecting the unfathomable tragedy of Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings into their own lives, deeply aching for those reeling from their losses or the devastation they witnessed.

But the reverberation of sympathy doesn’t stop there. There are also those – like me – who are not yet a parent or don’t work with kids on a daily basis, but are still marred by this tragedy, our hearts saddened for the suffering of others. Though we don’t share the same circumstance, we are all still human. We can relate and feel each other’s pain. It is a natural reaction to want to dissipate it, to spread the hurt among us hoping that maybe it’ll make it just a little easier for those central to this horror.

Connecticut is my state. My husband is a teacher. Many of our friends are teachers, one a second grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who survived the shootings and is suffering the loss of her colleagues and so many students. My sister-in-law was good friends with the heroic Vicki Soto who died protecting her students. Another friend studied with and was very close with the special education teacher who was killed. There are many connections to this tragedy that hits very close to home.

Grief and sadness rule at this time when those that are far too young and far too innocent are being buried. What can we do but look at our own lives, our own experiences, to try and move forward in a way that honors all of those that are suffering and respects the memory of those that were lost? It’s a time for necessary reflection and action on personal, national, and global levels.

A big piece of those parents died along with those children, but I believe that a piece of them also will live on within those parents – affecting how they live their lives and the choices that they make in their memory. It’s that whispered guidance of their children that will help them to instill love, beauty and compassion into this world – sentiments far stronger than the hate and fear that this gunman hoped to instill. He will not win.

I am reading a book called Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. It is a collection of essays written in response to those who wrote in to her anonymous online advice column. One is from a mother who miscarried her baby six months into the pregnancy and is understandably devastated over the loss more than one year later. She is frustrated that those around her think she should “be over it” by now and does not understand how others aren’t feeling the same breadth of her pain. She signs her letter, Stuck.  

What Sugar writes back rings so true to the losses suffered at Sandy Hook Elementary as well. Advice for healing that will come in due time:  

“This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved, but so you can live the life that is yours – the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her, but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it.”

The only way for those left behind to survive something like this is when the rawness begins to subside, to adapt rather than crumble – in no way an easy thing to do. The unfortunate reality is that the 27 innocent lives cannot be brought back and the tragedy cannot be erased. As a community, a collective of humans, we need to absorb what happened and adjust our lives around it. To harp on the tragedy and let it define us will do no good. Rather, we need to define what our lives will be in spite of this tragedy. We need to sharpen our focus, reassess our priorities and make an even more concerted effort to love and let ourselves be loved, as that is what makes the world function. Let there be so much kindness that there is no room for hate.

Adapting takes time. The wounds will be raw for weeks, months, years to come, but in time, they will scar and those same wounds will be put toward good. The grief is surmountable. But right now, we all need to give ourselves the time and space needed to grieve and to mourn. We need to be gentle with ourselves and give ourselves whatever we need: space, distractions, sleep, each other.

Then we must move on and we must prove to those children and their teachers that despite such terrible violence, beautiful life continues. This wildly troubled young man did not take away the lives of everyone. Instead, it brought a community closer and turned the globe’s attention in compassion for the families, not vindication for the killer. We must let compassion rule not further the hate.

Sugar goes on to say that those who suggest that this woman (Stuck) should be over her daughter’s death are saying this because they live on Planet Earth, whereas Stuck instead lives on Planet My Baby Died. It is in consoling themselves with the other parents who will now forever live on Planet My Young Child Died, that these grief-stricken families will find some semblance of healing and understanding. The community of Sandy Hook will be able to heal from within as they turn to each other for comfort in a way that those of us who did not experience this loss will never be able to comprehend. They are not on their planet alone. It is a planet that no one wants to be on, but they are on it together.

The power of true connection and understanding without fear of judgment or worrying about the need for a filter is so important. Talking with others in the same circumstance is incredibly valuable to the coping process. I understand this because I too live in another world sometimes: Planet I Am Living With Cancer.

Though no one can fully grasp what those directly affected are feeling, we do have the power to relate, to remember when we, too, were suffering through whatever challenge it may have been and remember what helped us off the ground. Together, we can pick each other up and move forward.

I am in no way equating the turmoil I’ve experienced while going through my cancer battle with the loss these families are feeling, but it is how I can relate it to my life. I can sympathize with what it’s like to sit there devastated and uncomprehending as you are given life-changing news.

What I’ve learned through my own devastations is that eventually, with time, a lot of work, acceptance of support from others, and a lot of self-love, the pieces will come back together again. They won’t always stay aligned. It’s a fluid process. There will be reminders of the suffering – as there should be – which will again tilt the worlds of these families, throwing them off balance at unexpected times. However, even in the darkest of moments there is a light. There is always a ray of hope you can latch onto and pull yourself out with. I promise. Sometimes it’s real tough to see, but it’s there.

There were times during my treatment when I thought I would never recover: laying in bed on my 20th day of isolation with the flesh of my lips dangling off my face or listening – yet another time – to the news that yet another treatment course had failed. Things happened to my body and my emotions that I never could have anticipated.

But what surprised me the most about surviving those traumas was that they were surmountable. Things do get better. I had to learn to be patient and not to be frustrated with the process. This too will be a process for those suffering from loss or trying to un-see the unthinkable that they witnessed. It is painful, but we are a resilient species.

As bystanders, we need to respect that everyone grieves differently and reacts to tragedy in myriad ways. Rather than judging or pushing away in fear of the intensity of emotion surrounding a situation like this, we must instead lean on each other, listen to each other, and embrace each other with all of the compassion that we can.

Like many, I feel powerless and helpless in the wake of something so huge. However, we have to remind ourselves that we do have some power. We have the capacity to love each other, to make each day count, and to live our own lives with compassion and understanding for everyone. This is the place that peace will grow from – not from more anger, violence, blame, and terror. This is how we can honor those who were lost so tragically. This is how we can carry on the beautiful innocence of those children and the unwavering dedication of those educators no longer with us.

“The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.” – George C. Scott


  1. Thank you for your beautiful comments and for helping us all to think about wha is really important in our lives. You posess wisdom beyond your years- we are all so lucky to have you!

  2. I haven't left a comment in a long time, but I am so struck - and stuck - by this tragedy and you have helped me understand how we can move forward and honor the children with our actions. Thank you for that. Peace to you and to everyone for today and into the new year...

  3. That was beautifully said.
    I lost my daughter 7 years ago, and was "stuck" for oh so many years. You never get over it, but healing can, and does, happen. We started a non profit foundation in my daughter's memory, and you are exactly right. The reaching out is very healing.
    I don't know when I first was connected to your web site, but you write so eloquently of your experiences, that I keep coming back to check on you.
    Keep doing what you do, you have a gift, and you are an inspiration to us all.