Post Newtown

There was a bit of discussion on Facebook  about whether and what to tell kids about Newtown, so I thought that I’d just tell you how it went down at my house.

J was home sick on Friday, and I did not make a peep about it. Then M arrived home from school, and I said, “Hello! How was your day?” and she responded “Depressing!”

I thought she knew already.

Nope, it turns out that in health, they watched an anti-smoking film that, according to M, focused on a woman who began smoking at 10, needed a lung transplant by 28, and died at 31. I think it was Pam Laffin. Anyway, there was a substitute teacher for the class who (again, according to M) wasn’t particularly attentive, and as the woman in the film talked about how sad she was that she wouldn’t see her children grow up, M and four other girls began sobbing so much that after class, one of the 5th-grade teachers invited them to have lunch in the classroom with her so that they could calm down and talk together. Turns out two of the girls have close family members who are smokers. M was outraged because parents just had to sign a special permission slip for kids to watch PG-rated  Elf for their upcoming holiday party, but there wasn’t any sort of warning about this movie which would obviously be upsetting to kids who can’t control whether or not their family members smoke. She has a point, and I would have written an email about it if the whole episode weren’t overtaken by other events.

Anyway,  I told both girls about the shooting in the barest possible terms on Friday afternoon, because I knew that they’d end up hearing about it eventually, between school and news reports. I wanted it to come from me. I said that there had been a shooting at a school, that it looked like a little more than 20 people had died, and that there wasn’t much more information yet.

M heard me but barely processed it. She reads news magazines and the newspaper that are around the house, and she’s interested in current events. One example: she recently asked me to read her an article in National Geographic about The Tunnels of Gaza, and both girls sat listening through the whole thing. But we don’t have cable, and we rarely watch news on tv. Since Friday, we’ve been turning off NPR whenever Newtown comes up.  All those news reports point out what makes this event particularly horrifying (It was in a suburban town just like yours! Those kids were even younger than your kids! Teachers were killed, too, and no matter how hard your teachers might try, they really wouldn’t have much hope against a determined killer with an assault weapon, either!) and heartbreaking (all those personal stories that just undo us again and again). If M heard those, I’m sure she would be sobbing just like during that anti-smoking movie. But without all of that additional information, the horror of Newtown has about the same emotional impact on M as the recent floods in the Philippines or the violence in Syria. Have any of us sobbed about those tragedies lately?

J, meanwhile, tends to be more sensitive about everything, and she asked why anyone would do that, and how it could happen. I said that sometimes people are sick in their heads or have such an unhappy or cruel childhood that it makes them angry, and then I launched into a brief explanation of guns. I tried to start off in an even-handed way, saying that a lot of people feel strongly that the right to have a gun is an important tradition from way back during the Revolutionary War, and other people think that guns are so dangerous that we should control. . . . And here’s where J cut me off, “I’m on that side. The Don’t-Have-Guns side.” I exhaled and said, “Me, too, honey. I’m on that side, too.”

After that I asked if they had any other questions or things that they wanted to talk about, and I said that this hardly ever happens (umm, fudging a bit there), and then I told them that they shouldn’t bring this up with any other children, because we don’t know what other children know about it, and some parents might not want their children to hear about it at all, because as they well know I tend to explain more than a lot of other parents (here M laughed and ruefully agreed). But, I said, they could ask me or their Dad or even their teachers if it was one-on-one.

There’s been no more talk since then. We had a very busy weekend (two shows, two soccer games, a mock gymnastics meet, and Nana Honey & Pop visiting). There wasn’t much time for reflection, anyway. One morning a report began on the radio and J heard that it was elementary-school kids, but we turned it off right away. “Was that the shooting from before?” J asked. “Yes,” I said, “Do you have any questions about it?” She said no.

So that’s where we are. I dropped off brownies at the school on Monday because it seemed like it would be a hard day to be a teacher, and as of today, the front door of the school is locked. One parent I talked to seemed reassured, and I guess I understand the impulse to make modifications, and I’d probably do it, too, if I were an administrator.  But for me, waiting to get buzzed into a school I visit so frequently just felt unfriendly and depressing, especially considering that the whole entrance area is windows, and we’re only too aware that glass can be shot out.

This feels like the most melancholy holiday season I’ve had in a long time. Beyond Newtown, there’s still so much suffering from Sandy, and people I care about have a variety of ongoing struggles that I’m not going to mention here.  It seems like there’s an effort to find hopeful stories, like the community Christmas tree in the Hurricane Sandy wreckage and the Easy Bake Oven going gender neutral after lobbying by a 13-year-old and Ann Curry’s kindness campaign in memory of the Newtown victims.

But it’s still a little bit tough not to feel like things are going to hell in a hand-basket.

So, how are all of you doing? Do your kids know what happened? If not, do you think that they feel this melancholy even if they don’t know why it’s there? Have you got any techniques that have helped you and your family get merry?


  1. Nope–there’s one door open that goes straight past a desk where there’s someone there to greet/a table to sign in if you’re a visitor.

  2. Cheri

    We handled it exactly like you did. I felt it was important for them to hear from me, not on the bus. I too, felt a tiny bit of relief and a bunch of sadness that I needed to be buzzed into the school this afternoon (especially when the person buzzing me in looked less than thrilled to be doing so). I’m feeling very sad and emotional each day I walk into my schools for work. It’s especially hard when I see those tiny kindergarten and 1st grade students in the hall or lining up for lunch. I imagine how scared they must have been, even for just a few minutes. It’s a sad week and I don’t know if it will feel better anytime soon.

  3. Ken B

    Thanks for posting this. I was wondering how M + J were doing. And I must admit, I could use a little cheering up myself.

  4. @Cheri, I am right there with you.
    @Ken B, They are fine and getting excited for Christmas. I wish someone could protect ME from knowing about all this.

  5. Claire

    Thankfully my almost-5 year old hasn’t heard a word about it, so I have not had to bring it up with him. He’s a sensitive child, and I don’t want him to be scared to go to school. (He’s currently in preschool three mornings/week.) I totally agree that this has been a very melancholy holiday season. I feel guilty celebrating when the parents in Newtown are living in this horror. But my son deserves a nice Christmas, so I’m trying to make something positive come out of this situation by appreciating him more, being more patient with him, etc. We found out yesterday that my husband has to work from 9am-1pm on Christmas. I was disappointed, but thinking about Newtown put it in perspective. If only having a husband work for four hours on Christmas was the biggest stressor of their holiday.

    I also wanted to mention that I relate to your point about the emotional distance from tragedies in other parts of the world. The physical distance helps to promote the emotional distance. When I first saw the headlines on Friday, I tried to fool myself into keeping emotional distance from Newtown. I refused to read the stories, hoping that the death toll was minimal, and telling myself that it was a different community and I didn’t need to know the details. Needless to say, that didn’t last long. If anything, it’s getting harder as the days go on, because of the photos and personal stories being released. It makes it much more personal.

  6. @Claire, I go back and forth between ignoring it entirely and getting sucked into stories. Plus I keep asking leading questions, trying to find out if the kids are thinking and talking about it, but I don’t want to ask directly, because if they’re not, I don’t want to make them start. Bummer about Christmas morning, but yes, perspective works wonders with that one.

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