This weekend, like so many parents, Slade and I struggled with how to talk to our children about the unthinkable tragedy in Sandy Hook. We agreed right away that we wanted to have some sort of conversation with our son and daughter before they went back to school.
But how to explain something that makes no sense?
We decided to keep it very simple. We talked to Lea first, alone. She’s 11 and in 6th> grade, which is middle school in our town. We told her the facts and explained how unlikely it is that it would ever happen here.
Lea brought up the times her schools have been on lockdown. Once they thought a bank robber might be nearby and another time a man with a gun was seen in the woods. He turned out to be a hunter. After that and a few eye-rolls (“I know where Connecticut is, Mom”) she seemed to be doing okay.
Benny will be 8 later this month and his reaction was heart-breaking. “It’s so sad that it’s children because they didn’t have a chance to live a full life.”
We talked about how something was wrong with the man’s brain, which led us to a discussion about mental illness. I tried to tell them the difference between an illness like depression and the much more severe problems the shooter must have had. This is such tricky territory; I really hope I did a decent job.
(Usually when I explain a disability, I bring it back to us: “She has an oxygen tank because her lungs don’t work so well. Just like you wear an insulin pump because your pancreas is kaput and Lea wears glasses because her eyes aren’t perfect.” But that didn’t seem to be appropriate here.)
We talked about what their schools might do this week and whether there might be drills. Lea wondered if there was a real emergency would the police ever bring them to a different school or a safer place? How would we find her?
We told them that’s not something they ever have to worry about. We will always look for them and we will always find them. I must have been adamant about that part because it was the only thing that made Lea emotional. Big hugs. At bedtime, Benny had more questions. “What did the shooter look like?” “I wish it had only been one child (pause) no, zero children.” “I hope that never happens to me and my school.” “I know why he shot himself. His brain was all messed up, but it was working just enough to know he did something really bad.”
We talked about how Benny’s school day would probably be as usual. I doubt they’re going to spend a lot of time on this for second graders. But I said his teachers might want to hug their students a little bit more today.
I told him, hug them back.