Why I Didn't Tell My Daughter About Newtown

4 years ago

I spent Friday, as many of you did, alternating between crying and hitting refresh on my web browser. Had I a different job, I might not have known about the Newtown shooting as early as I did. Had I been a different person, I might have monitored it less frequently, only seeing what absolutely had to be seen in order to update BlogHer News editor Grace Hwang Lynch's heartfelt first response on BlogHer while she was on the road.

And had I been a different person, I might have told my eight-year-old daughter what happened.

(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

I read a ton of posts on talking to your kids about tragedy. One that stuck with me the most was from Fresh Widow, whom I met many BlogHers ago when I sat behind her on the floor at a crowded session. Among her tips:

Respect your own feelings and understand that your experience of this may be completely different from your kids' experience. It's okay for you to take care of yourself, too. Get comfortable with the fact that you can't control the world and that our own feelings can sometimes feel like "too much." Your comfort level will enable your children to "hear" that you are open to questions -- even though we know you don't want to handle this terrible topic AGAIN. Dealing with "shit that happens" (in all forms) is part of parenting and part of our world and you can handle it.

I read posts about not transferring your own anxiety to your kids, posts about not giving too much detail, posts about age appropriateness, posts about other posts and how those writers were doing it wrong. And then ultimately, I decided I would not bring it up unless she did. I would wait to see what she said when she got off the bus. And that was, "Where are the cats?"

I have always been the sort of person to agonize over the what-ifs. Fire Safety Week would have me up late at night for the next month planning my escape route. I am terrified of the side effects of even the most benign medicines to the point that my pharmacist probably sighs with relief when I walk away. Earlier this month, while talking to my pregnant hairstylist about her grandfather's death, I found myself suddenly and irrationally afraid of dying while getting my hair colored. My family often reminds me that my daughter is not me and seems to be less delicate a flower, mental health-wise, but the same part of me that's able to access my childhood to write novels for young adults is the part that's able to access the fear and uncertainty of childhood and the flip-side belief real and true that my parents were able to protect me from everything, that God was able to protect me from everything. It was a hard day as a fully formed adult when I adopted my current belief: There are no safe places, and no unsafe places, there are just places. Focus on coping, not finding safe harbors. Pray hard and row for shore.

While I waited for my girl to get off the bus, I watched President Obama's press conference video over and over, thinking about what I would say to her if she got off the bus knowing. I hoped I would not have to explain it, selfishly. I hoped I would not have to explain it, altruistically. I wished it were not a thing needing explanation, sanely.

I went to a few holiday parties over the weekend. At one party, a parent friend of mine said she had talked to her eight-year-old daughter about the shootings and her daughter said they practiced lockdowns at school already. We both stood there, examining a plate of cookies. "Maybe that's like our parents and grandparents practicing hiding under their desks against nuclear warfare," I said. We stared at each other. It's true there's always been something to be afraid of if you go looking for it.

Today I went to a holiday party for a literary organization. We played a game in which you tried to guess the novel from a group of first lines. A lot of them were novels that addressed death in some capacity. We talked about how when you read novels too young sometimes the whole point sails over your head along with all the kissing parts and anything scary. I remembered reading The Scarlet Letter way too young and all I got out of it was DEVIL BABY.

When I was in high school, one of my cousin's friends shot himself in his car with his girlfriend sitting right next to him. He died. It didn't register for me how horrible that must have been for not only for his family but also for his girlfriend -- who was right there in the same front seat -- until years later. I don't know if I was insensitive or just young. I've only ever been me.

My mom has a habit of telling me who that we know has recently gotten cancer or some other terminal illness. Now that I'm almost forty, I understand why she's telling me. When I was twenty, I thought she was just trying to depress the shit out of me. When you know almost everyone in your tiny town, you realize you know a hell of a lot of sick people. My mom had cancer when I was a tween. People alternated between asking me questions I didn't want to answer and very obviously not talking about it at all. I read their concern as prying and their space as uncaring, because I was very angry to be the kid with the sick mother. I spent those years also trying very hard not to think through all the horrible things that could go wrong with her chemotherapy and radiation. As an adult, I'm ashamed of how I deflected these things. I know quite well that many people tried to talk to me about many things over the years, and I interpreted that as their need to talk to me about things, because if I wanted to talk to them about it, wouldn't I start a conversation?

I think as parents we're all shaped by our own childhoods. Other than my mother's cancer, my childhood was great, and I see that now, though for many years it was framed through by my own undiagnosed anxiety disorder. That I was not happy as much as I would've liked to be was not anyone's fault, but it was how I felt. My daughter seems happy most of the time. So far -- so far! -- she doesn't display the anxiety I felt as a child. She comes to me, from time to time, and asks about things, but right now she still lives in a world of Santa Claus and Charlotte's Web. She's never seen a PG-13 movie, she's never even seen the shooting in Star Wars and she's never focused on the nightly news. It wasn't breaking any sort of norm that she didn't see the news on Friday or any day this weekend. We didn't start the conversation.

If she comes home tomorrow and asks about Newtown, I've decided what I'm going to say. Something terrible happened last week. I don't know why it happened. Don't let it make you afraid, because there's always something to be afraid of if you go looking for it. Let's not look.

Not "it can't happen to you." I can't guarantee that. Not "God wouldn't let that happen," because I personally don't think God let Newtown happen, not for a reason. It happened. It was horrible. If she asks, what I will say is this: "Life is short. Let's not seek out things to worry about." And I'll show her my tattoo again of the word "now" that I got two years ago to help me break my seemingly never-ending focus on all the things that can go wrong. The truth is bad things can happen, they do happen, and heartbreakingly, sometimes they happen to awesome people. Sometimes the marathon runner has a heart attack. Sometimes innocent kids get shot. And because something bad actually could happen, don't focus too hard on tomorrow. Focus on right now, this minute. In this minute, we love each other, and that matters. Focus on that.

Until she asks, I'm going to keep my fears to myself and use the energy I would've used talking to my daughter about unimaginable horror to write this post for all of the parents and trusted adults who chose not to talk to their kids about Newtown and are looking for a way to explain that to themselves. I'm going to use some of that energy to pray for the victims' families and even for the shooter's family, because they lost people and I'm so sorry they lost people. I'm going to pray for myself and my family the prayer I've learned to use instead of the "please let this happen, please don't let that happen" plea that I've prayed my whole life. Ever since I got the tattoo, I've been praying this: "Please help me be a better person. Please give me strength to deal with whatever happens."

I don't have words for the level of emotion I feel for those parents and friends and families. I'm sure there's a scientific term for this physical pain I feel for people I've never met. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. Right now, this minute, I'm thinking of you and wishing for relief from your pain.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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