Days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, parents and children across the country and the world are still reeling from the horrific loss of life. You have sought details in the news coverage to try to unlock the mystery of why it happened. Perhaps you have read numerous excellent articles advising you how to talk with your children about what happened and then had some heart-breaking discussions with them. Maybe you’ve taken the compassionate route of supporting institutions in their work to assist the Newtown community as it grapples with and rebuilds itself emotionally from the wreckage that was left behind.
Most parents seem to have gone through the same emotions, so eloquently posted by a friend on Facebook:
And most parents have held their own children a little tighter, a little longer the last several days.
Now what? Does your heart still pain for the parents whose children never came home on December 14, 2012? Does your mind still churn, seeking to make sense of the senseless?
While all of this is normal, there comes a time in the grieving process to deal with your emotions and heal from the pain. If you are still affected, chances are your kids are too. It’s hard to expect our children to restore their sense of security and faith in the world if we are still struggling with it.
So, here are five tips to help get you and your kids back on track:
1. Turn Off the Media Coverage
There is a careful balance to strike with media. It is important to stay informed of current events, we adults can only absorb so much appalling news before we reach our saturation point. Even if your children are young enough to remain unaware of the tragedy and you’ve done a good job of shielding them from the media, they are likely soaking up any stress you harbor. Limiting your exposure can help reduce that stress and benefit your wee one.
Remember the adage that kids are like sponges? They soak up information fast, but they reach their threshold much sooner than most adults — even though you may not see any signs of it. Respect and protect their impressionable natures by turning off the TV, radio, Internet stream, and don’t forget magazines – both in the store checkout and at home.
I can still picture the dreadful cover of a magazine featuring a Sandy Hook-level tragedy that my mother brought home and placed in our living room during my elementary school years. I can still recall the frightful headline and awful graphics. It bothered me for a very long time.
Do I think she intended to harm me through overexposure? No. Do I think she meant to warn me of the darkness in the world and impress upon me the need to be careful, not trust strangers, learn self-defense, and more? Probably. Did it work? Somewhat, but had she been tuned into what a sensitive child I was, especially visually, she could have chosen a kinder, more measured way to present the news and the relevant lesson she wished to impart.
2. Be Mindful
Attend to your own needs to ensure that you can parent mindfully. Calm yourself through yoga, lose your worries and restore your faith via prayer, practice meditation, take a bath, go on a run, have a good cry with a girlfriend – whatever you do to restore your own internal balance.
Then you can get back to the important work of being a mindful parent. When you are present in the moment with your children, you are tuned in to listen to and address their post-tragedy concerns. You can also hear and address your own inner voice, acknowledging the fears, grief, or other overwhelming emotions that you might be experiencing. If you need to, take time to journal about your thoughts and feelings. Try to limit this to times when the kids are asleep or in others’ care, so you do not short change them in the process.
Still struggling? Ask for help – whether from the Creator and/or by getting professional help; sometimes talking with a counselor is just the thing. Know what you need, and then act on it to restore your own balance.
3. Restore Confidence
Probably you’ve seen this lovely thought by Mr. Rogers that’s been passed around the Internet as a balm to our collective suffering:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Mr. Rogers
By being a mindful, present parent in the face of tragedy, your child most likely will feel safe and secure. By turning off the media before you or your kids hit your saturation point, you limit exposure to the darkness of the tragedy and keep it in perspective. Be the source of light in your child’s world. This is a crucial role you play.
The best way to help your child to grow noble is to fill her up with models and images of noble human behavior. By measuring your exposure to the news machine pumping out details about the tragedy, you protect your own soul from dwelling on the unfortunate side of life. Lower levels of parental anxiety mean you are better able to deal with the daily stress of parenting. All of this benefits your child.
Finally, focus on stories of nobility that temper and outshine the scary story and its images that are affecting too many little ones this week. While there are many that come to mind, one that our kids often request features two animals that model the human virtues of friendship and courage, against a backdrop of awe for the world’s beauty: The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Another picture book that always moves us near the end when strangers rise to generously enable a girl to purchase her first pony is My Chincoteague Pony by Susan Jeffers.
4. Cherish Childhood
Enjoy this poem – one of my favorites as a parent – and reflect on it as you go about your day, cherishing your own little one’s childhood. The final sentence struck an additional chord in me as I reread it this week, thinking of the loss many Sandy Hook parents experienced first hand.
While they are at your side, love these little ones to the uttermost. Forget yourself. Serve them; care for them; lavish all your tenderness on them. Value your good fortune while it is with you, and let nothing of the sweetness of their babyhood go unprized. Not for long will you keep the happiness that now lies within your reach. You will not always walk in the sunshine with a little warm, soft hand nestling in each of yours, nor hear little feet pattering beside you, and eager baby voices questioning and prattling of a thousand things with ceaseless excitement. Not always will you see that trusting face upturned to yours, feel those little arms about your neck, and those tender lips pressed upon your cheek, nor will you have that tiny form to kneel beside you, and murmur baby prayers in your ear.
Love them and win their love, and shower on them all the treasures of your heart. Fill up their days with happiness, and share with them their mirth and innocent delights.
Childhood is but for a day. Ere you are aware it will be gone with all its gifts forever.
– George Townshend (1876 – 1957)
5. Have Fun
Okay, this may seem insensitive to suggest. Of course, this is not advice directed toward the affected Newtown community, which will move through the stages of grief at a different rate and on a much deeper level than the rest of the nation. This is simply a reminder that if we do all of the above – limit media, be mindful, restore confidence, cherish childhood – then it will be natural to have fun.
When we make our peace with the fact that darkness exists in the world, but the light is more powerful, we find ourselves immersed in and reflecting that light. Laughter comes again and love shines brightly, unmarred by the sadness from our interactions with darkness. And the power of laughter and love to heal cannot be underestimated.
So, get the hot chocolate brewing and snuggle with your own tender saplings. Let the bright lights of the holiday season shine, as we in the northern hemisphere mark the return to longer days of light starting this Friday. Hold dear the lives of those lost and their families in your hearts and actions, but go ahead and allow yourself to live life again.
Love. Laugh. Have Fun.
What are your recommendations – articles, children’s picture books, favorite quotes, etc. – for helping restore balance after a tragedy?