The Cocoon, interrupted

The Cocoon, interrupted

I am raw.

In our suburban enclave, we co-parent.  All children are ours.  We watch over them, are not reluctant to tattle if we see a child in harm's way.  We do not get defensive when someone is trying to keep our kids safe.  It is our constant belief that all our care will insulate our kids from harm.

On the last 10 days, our security has been breached.

I did not know Kelli O'Laughlin.  I know her Mom, since my 3 sons were in her 3 kids' classes.  Kelli was the late, joyful addition to her family.  Her mother is a sturdy, tireless woman, beautiful inside and out.  When her three oldest were growing up, she worked long hours at the post office, a single Mom who would not let her kids miss out on one thing because their Dad evaporated, emotionally, physically and financially.  Her parents helped her by giving them love and structure.  They are great kids, every one of them-smart, honest, successful.  She knew where they were 24/7/365.  It shows.

Life became a little easier with her new husband.  He was steady, sweet, loving her and her kids.  He and Brenda so rejoiced in parenthood that they decided to have a child together.  Her youngest, Daniel, was 11, but she started fresh.   That baby was Kelli.  All her kids testify to the benefits of great parenting, and they are all joys.  In fact, Kelli's middle name was Joy, which by all accounts captures her spirit.  Matt and Daniel were middle schoolers when she arrived on the scene,  and Matt loved being a "mother's helper" with Daniel.  Kelli was a double mystery to him- a girl and a baby.  High school sent Matt to the music wing at LTHS, and Daniel to the sports wing, but they shared the wonderment at this new bundle.

Brenda teeter-tottered between the high school /college years of her older kids and Kelli's preschool years with grace.  She was ever present.  The last time I saw Kelli, she was trick or treating with her Mom.  She was old enough to go with friends, but Brenda was vigilant.  Turns out, evil in the world can undo the most airtight protection system.  We believe we control our trajectory.  Ha! We are just visitors in the time-space continuum.

My faith assures me that Kelli is in a safe and peaceful place.  My eyes tell me her family is in hell, trying to figure out how to put one step in front of the other.

Our community joined together to say goodbye, and to encircle this family with ancillary support. Kids are not little adults- they are wired to process less rationally.   It is hard to sort out the mish mosh of emotions.  Parents must guide our children at this moment.  My boys are older, and they have accepted the random vagaries of life.  Their young bubble was punctured when the Twin Towers fell.   This is more intimate, closer to their world.  They mourn for the parents, for their friends.  They have the infra-structure to process what has happened, and to move forward. Still, they are jangled.

High schoolers are not as fortified.  They are scared.  Their imaginations are engaged.  They are in shock, because kids should not have to process such a terrible event.  Most of all, Kelli's friends are torn to their core by this loss- of her smile, her energy.  It all roils and bubbles in the hormonal cauldron that is teen aged life.  There is terrible grief and unfiltered despair.  At the funeral home, waves of pained sobbing punctuated the soundtrack selected by Kelli's family.  Many children were dropped off to navigate their first visitation with friends.  I imagine that parents were told that they were not needed. They were needed.

Hard times are when parents swoop in to do the job they are programmed to do from the moment they see their child.

Schools can provide grief counseling until the cows come home. Kids rarely want to be counseled-it is part of their formatting that they think they can handle things.  Such bravado is respected, and translated by intuitive parents.  They need us.

In the end, it is a mother who will notice a loss of appetite, or a father that sees lights on as he goes to bed.  Mom and Dad are best able to sort out real grief- which belongs to Kelli's many friends -from the contagious sadness or drama that teenaged kids cannot filter.  They will see if their children cling, or will not stay home alone. They will not let their children experience irrational, paralyzing fear.  There are statistical and emotional ways to repair our childrens'  optimism. It is a confusing maze to navigate, but mom and dad have the GPS for it.  This is not a reality show, and good parents will not let it become such. There are churches and youth groups to draw on.  The school has made resources available to the LT family via the school website, and I would bet that most of our high school parents have gratefully sought wisdom there.

I saw this process in action at visitation.  Moms and Dads demonstrated strength and wisdom.  Many accompanied their respectfully dressed children past 5 media trucks, and into a queue lined by stuffed animals, flowers, pictures, scrapbooks and slide shows.  They answered questions, addressed fears in the two hours it took to pay respects.  Kids wish to be free ranging at this age- in fact they may demand it.  But what they need is structure and support.  They make mistakes, parents redirect them.  They fear, parents allay those fears.  They push back, parents take the rejection in stride, and stand by to watch their children take wing and fly.  There is no job as rewarding or painful.

For the O'Laughlins, the bitter pain cannot be measured.

Last week brought horror into a gentle family.  We will pray for them and support them. The perpetrator has been caught, but the senselessness of violence and greed has penetrated a circle of love. The deed is inexplicable, but it is our custom to demand order in the world.  After living for a few decades, we can concede that evil can present itself randomly.  Our role as adults is not to make this concession to young kids- they need to believe in a purer, safer world for awhile.

Parents will give comfort and peace to their children.  We will reknot the safety net.  In helping our kids on the journey, we will help the O'Laughlins.

They have to go on.

To do so, they need to close ranks.  They have been comforted, and they have consoled.  It is our turn to lift the burden of consoling.  Throughout our community, this work is in progress, at home, in the car, on the end of the bed.  Bit by bit, we will return to the way we were.  With one, glaring giant omission.





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  • This is such a heartbreaking story.

  • Hold up...I am not even done reading yet....parents sent their teens to mourn a classmate ALONE?!?!? A classmate who died the most frightening way possible. Oh, dear Lord.

  • As always, Janet, beautifully put. I was a single mom who's daughter went to the Highlands, and then LT. We always believed we lived in a safe bubble. What a harsh lesson for all. My heart breaks for the family.

  • This story has rattled me and my kids, and we didn't even know Kelli, but her story could be any family's or child's. That's what makes it so scary. Thanks for beautifully articulating the confusion and potential clarity. Well put.

  • "Bit by bit, we will return to the way we were."

    You tell yourself that, but really, you don't. You establish a new "normal", where you're a little more worrisome, a little more vigilant, and a little more vulnerable. Little reminders evoke passing moments of sorrow. You get past them--the little blessings you wrote of last week, and the joys of your regular routine, returned, help greatly. But it's more than just the one glaring omission.

    In our own "safe" bubble, we lost one of our students to an act of violence, two years back. Things may appear the same as they did before, but when you look, you see the orange ribbons and shoelaces, the extra sunflowers around town. Anniversaries of dances and races and retreats and birthdays are noted, sometimes in words, sometimes just the return of an old photo to someone's Facebook profile. There's a song that many of us can't bear to listen to anymore. Not yet, at least.

    We go on... with time and help, we go back to doing what we did before, we appreciate what we have, and cherish it a little more than we once did. But we will never be what we were... a part of us is always a little diminished.

    My best wishes to you as you find your new "normal".

  • In reply to jlindquist74:

    You make a good point- we spackle the gaps, and apply a fresh coat of paint, but there is a fault line underneath that will always be there. We are changed in the foundation level, but we are still grateful for that which remains the same. We need to focus on the good we still have to move ahead. But out of the blue- a greeting card, a song or a color can take us to fetal position. We pay for the joy of living by grieving profoundly when pieces of the joy are excised. When loss is unexpected or the result of random evil, we are shaken. Both happened here. It is harder to rebuild the substrate that supports us. But life is a one way trip, and there is no "pause" button. So on we must march, work in progress.

  • Very well said, Janet. When my neighbor took her 14 year old freshman daughter to the wake with her friends, some of whom were from Highlands, she said it was Kelli's Mom who was consoling the girls. She could hardly believe it that someone who has gone through what she has could be so strong, telling the girls to remember Kelli the way she was when they were together, and that she knew she never could be that strong.

  • Life is fragile. Live it to the fullest. Tell those you love how you feel.

    Have no regrets. It is the only thing you really can control.

  • Very nice article Janet

  • The desire for vengeance on the perp is so overwhelming to me, it's hard to work feelings past those. Rage feeds... I couldn't bear it for my own kids, it is a nightmare too dark to even peer at the edge of that abyss.

    The word tragedy is unjust and trite, for the family and all the citizens of Indian Head Park.

  • My daughter and her family live but a couple short blocks from the O'Laughlins' home. Our two, sweet, innocent granddaughters played many times at the park next door to Kelli's home this past summer becoming friends with Kelli, out walking the dog. The days following the tragedy as the adults in Indian Head Park/west Chicago tried to sort out the over whelming details, the kids did what they knew best, write a letter to Kelli. From the mouths of babes come the honest truth. "We will miss you and love you." As adults we want more words...more reasons, more answers to the many, many, many questions. In the end, the only question with no answer is, "Why?" Why Kelli in small, protective Indian Head Park? Our Neighborhood? Our LTHS community?

    Last weekend as I was unpacking the many tubs of Christmas decorations, I came across two large boxes, with big letters written on the outside...COLUMBINE. As I opened the first box, a big homemade card from Las Palmas Elementary School, San Antonio, Texas jumped out at me to be read. (School where one of our other daughters taught in 1999) I did recall some of the words written back in 1999, when our family was taken to our knees with the shooting tragedy. Most of the staff/faculity notes referred to Dave Sanders, the teacher shot in the back and left to bleed to death in the presence of several students holding his wallet filled with his precious family pictures. I am sure the O'Laughlins and the Sanders family share feelings that you and I hopefully will never, ever, have to live with. Add to the list, the family of 911 pilot, Flight #93, Jason Dahl that live just a couple short miles from our home and the Columbine Memorial. We are all suffering/survirors in one way or another to these events. We must go on and do the best we can to live each day to the fulliest.

    Janet Dahl's article needs to be re-read every now and then to help us get thru the new "normal" 2011. Thanks to you Janet for saying in words what we feel in our hearts. Annie in Littleton, Colorado

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