Newtown Shootings: Integrating Shock and Sadness into Ongoing Family Life

I am not often afflicted with writer’s block, yet I have been unable to put pen to paper since Friday in terms of writing coherently about Newtown.

The images have been too terrible for words.  I have kept the TV news off (not hard to do, since we never have a television on anyway), and I’ve avoided the radio, because we have young kids afoot who need not hear the tragedy deconstructed.

But the images are there --the faces of beautiful young children and teachers showing up in photo testimonials on Facebook news feeds—and they literally cause me to suck in my breath.

Friday was a weird day.  For weeks, I had been looking forward to it, because it was Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars Day, a really awesome anti-bullying toy drive.  In the morning, as people uploaded photos to the event’s page, there was a festive, joyful feeling.

And then the news about Newtown came crashing in, and it felt wrong to be celebrating anything, even an anti-bullying toy drive, if that is possible.  I had been planning to pick up a cake that said "Happy Star Wars Day, Katie!" (like the one we got last year), but my heart wasn’t in it.  I skipped the cake, but I did continue to “like” and comment on photos on the event page, and I even made a slideshow of the pictures to share with the Star Wars fans, because I do believe that life goes on.

I decided to choose the motto of my dear friend, Mary Tyler Mom: Choose Hope.  Mary Tyler Mom has written eloquently and extensively about her family’s continual decision to choose hope, even as their baby daughter Donna experienced relapse after relapse of brain cancer.  They are still choosing hope today, three years after Donna's death, as they work to expand their family through adoption.

It seemed fitting, then, that we had long-standing plans for the Mary Tyler family to join us last Friday night for a night of Hanukkah and Shabbat.  In the spirit of hope, I spent the day expressing my love for my family and friends by taking time off from work and cooking traditional Jewish foods—homemade Matzo ball soup, homemade latkes, slow roasted chicken and vegetables – all while I wiped away tears and read about the terrible details unfolding from Newtown.

My youngest sister, who lives with her boyfriend in Connecticut, kept in contact with me all day, expressing great distress at learning that the young son of a friend of her boyfriend’s family was one of the children killed.  She could not stop crying.

My husband Andrew and I talked by phone and agreed that we would tell our 9 and 5-yr-old girls what had happened.  If our oldest child were the 5-yr-old, we would not have made that decision.  But the 9-yr-old is highly likely to hear something from someone at school, and she is absolutely incapable of keeping information from her younger sister.

So the decision had to be to tell neither of them or tell both of them.  It is my firm belief that it is better for my girls to learn about shocking things from me, where I can control the flow of information and answer their questions, rather than wait for them to hear things secondhand on the playground.

My husband picked the girls up from school and brought them home, where our house was warm and filled with delicious smells.  Together we told them about the tragic losses in Newtown, avoiding too many details, yet answering their questions.

Why? 5 yr-old Annie Rose wanted to know, her little face contorted in confusion and sadness.

His brain was sick, and he couldn’t make sense of what he was doing, we replied.  We hugged them.  We reassured them that we and their teachers do everything we can to keep them safe.

Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang, and we ushered in the Mary Tyler family.  The house sprang to life as our three little girls encircled three-yr-old Mary Tyler Son into their embrace.  There were dreidels and bags of chocolate gelt, menorahs and stories of oil miraculously burning for eight days.

As we lit the Shabbat candles, Andrew and I added in another prayer for the victims of Newtown, but we didn’t elaborate much about it, because our 2-yr-old daughter and young Mary Tyler Son were at the table, and we had decided to shield them from knowing what had happened.  Katie started to mention Newtown, and we quietly explained that we would talk about it later when the younger children were asleep.

In the midst of the prayers, our phone rang.  It was Annie Rose’s kindergarten teacher, calling to say that Annie Rose had left her treasured lovie at school.  The little brown blanket is my daughter’s constant companion.  Her teacher had been at school late but was now driving the lovie to our house.  The stunning devotion of a kindergarten teacher, going out of her way after a long and difficult day to bring comfort to one of her students.

Annie Rose was breathless with excitement and wanted to invite Maestra (Spanish for teacher) to eat dinner with us.  Maestra lovingly declined, eager to head home and see her husband, a city policeman.  Undoubtedly to hold each other and express their gratitude that our town had not seen such carnage as Newton.

The evening was beautiful and loving.  When the children retired to the basement to play, we grown-ups gave voice to our shock and sadness about what was transpiring in Connecticut.  It had to be talked about, because each of us was so keenly feeling the pain.  What senseless deaths.  What unrelenting grief.

The children came up for dessert, and the table seemed to explode in chocolate.  Talk turned to Christmas cookies, favorite bakeries, the merits of decaf versus caf coffee late at night.  Messy sticky faces grinned at us.  There was an almost-argument over who got what cupcake.  Katie stepped up to her role as the oldest and volunteered to give her coveted cupcake to one of the younger children.

In a flash of crumbs, the kids went back to the basement.  The grown-ups returned to talk.  The unimaginable loss of the parents who would never wipe sticky fingers again.  The hopes for a child’s life, buried, twentyfold.  The astonishing bravery of the teachers.

This is how we do it.  We feel the pain and talk about it.  We compartmentalize and live joyfully with our children.  We honor life by living it; we honor death by mourning it.

Throughout the weekend, Andrew and I quietly returned to our shock and grief.  Several times, the older girls asked questions, mostly about the motives of the killer, and we answered sadly that we do not have the answers.  On Saturday, we took our girls to a children’s museum, appreciating the simple pleasure of being together as a family. We celebrated the final night of Hanukkah with Andrew’s family on Saturday night.

On Sunday, it was our turn to invade the Mary Tyler Family’s house, and we helped them decorate their Christmas tree.  The final touch was a homemade star, carefully wrapped and stored, that had been made by Donna before she died.  We all admired the tree.  We remembered Donna.  I also thought of the Newtown victims, of the presents that surely have been bought for children that will never open them.

Mary Tyler Mom explained to our Jewish girls that Christmas trees are a sign of hope.

We ate homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese and Christmas cookies.  There was laughter, and happiness, and the fullness of life, all in a home that simultaneously lives with the constant grief of an absent child.

Annie Rose awoke at 1 am and 2 am and 3 am and 4 am and 5 am vomiting, feverish, screaming.  I thought of the parents of the Newtown victims as I held her smelly, vomit-covered body and smoothed her filthy hair back from her face.  What those parents would give to be awakened every hour by a barfing child.

I walked Katie to school, noting the somber air of the playground, appreciating the presence of our school’s principal as parents arrived.  I felt twinges of anxiety as I left my older daughter at school.  At 11:30, my cell phone rang while I was doing an interview, and I saw the number of the school.  There was a moment of panic, fully influenced and informed by the constant presence of Newtown on my mind.  It was the school nurse.  Katie was sick.

I canceled my interview and drove forty minutes back to school, collected my wilting daughter and brought her home.  There was no small amount of comfort in knowing that, for this one afternoon, all three of my girls were safely tucked under my wing.

But my baby birds will continue to fly away from home, and I will continue to choose hope.

I will choose hope that my children will be safe in school.  I will choose hope that my husband, a high school math teacher, will also remain safe in school.  Hope that the mentally ill will find better access to quality healthcare and less shame and stigma.  Hope that those who choose to bear arms will be satisfied with one practical handgun to assuage the fear of an intruder, rather than multiple assault-style weapons that can fall into misguided hands.  Hope that legislators will be brave and place the right of the innocent to live over the right of someone to collect weapons.  Hope that the families of the Newtown victims can-- in time-- find peace, learning to balance life and loss as the Mary Tyler family has.  Hope that, if such unspeakable tragedy befalls my own family, that I too could manage to go on.  Hope that my children and yours will grow up in a better world than the one we inhabit.

RIP, victims of Newtown.

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