Boston Marathon Bombing: What do we tell our children; what do we tell ourselves?

Three people dead, 144 hurt, some severely, at the Boston Marathon. No, not again.

We should be getting good at this, at finding ways to contend with violence in which thoroughly innocent people suffer sudden death or ever-changed lives. By now, we have a wide variety of perpetrators with plenty of different motives – international terrorists, domestic terrorists, toxic misfits, disgruntled workers, people who wage their own private wars. We believe that we can recognize some of them and prevent their acts. About others, we have no clue.

And we have a wide variety of victims, people just like us, and like our children. Caught in a moment so normal, so routine, that we can’t even imagine that something would go wrong.

Sitting in front of the original news reports I fought my own battle. Sick, sicker when I learned that one of the dead was an eight year-old boy there just to see his father run in the race, I needed to turn off the TV, but I needed to leave it on more, in a kind of vigil. To witness their suffering seemed the least I could do. And maybe the most I could do.

To our credit, we still can’t believe it when something like this happens. We haven’t come to expect such events – we are still horrified. We still search for ways to take it in.

In September 2001, my mother lived in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. As we sat in the day room, I debated whether to tell her about the attacks in New York. Across the room, a TV played and replayed video of the buildings going down, but her attention no longer wandered to such things. She would only know if I told her. Confident that if she was still her old self, she would be riveted, and aware that if I did tell her, she would pretty quickly forget, I went ahead. To keep it a secret seemed wrong.

“Mom,” I said. “Something really bad happened in New York. Some people flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and many people died.”
“Well, that’s terrible,” she said. “Why would they do that?”
“They aren’t sure yet.”
She sat quietly for a moment, and then said,” Well I’ll tell you one thing – anyone who would do that must have been very hurt themselves.”

Classic Mom, compassionate to the core. I struggled with what to say back, but as I watched, her face relaxed and our conversation evaporated. She asked if I knew where her lost hairbrush was.

It was a relief at the time, and is a relief that she is no longer here, witnessing all the things that have happened since, that would have forced her to update her understanding. The rest of us are left to process our disbelief, anger and hurt, and our relief that it wasn’t us and our children and our city, this time at least.

What can we tell ourselves?
There is still just a tiny chance that we personally will be hurt in such an event.
We can’t control the danger that others try to inflict.
We can’t prevent every attack, though we will continue to try.
We can control how we respond, however.
It does no good to cultivate hatred . It makes any situation worse.
We can respond by doing all the things proposed since the Sandy Hook school shooting – gun control, mental health risk assessments with teeth, and more, none of which will be enough. (My piece about Sandy Hook summarizes some of the others.)

We can talk to our children with reassurance but without empty promises:
Yes, there are some people who want to hurt other people.
Mostly, they fail, but sometimes they succeed.
There are many more people who don’t want to hurt anyone, and don’t want to see other people hurt.
We are that kind of people.

There is a quote from Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, traveling around the internet today, that might help:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things on 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 time 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.

As parents, may we find the words to tell our children something that will help them – that when something like this happens, we have choices. Instead of fear, we can find courage. Instead of hate, we can help. And we should never get used to this.


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  • Excellent insight from Ms. Crankypants. Worth reading.

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