Families Dealing With Tragedy: How To Try To Make Sense of the Senseless

I received an email last night from a mom asking for help in dealing with the news of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. She was devastated herself, and didn’t know how to answer her young children’s questions about what happened or address their fears. How do you make sense of the senseless? How do you explain the presence of God in such a Godless act? I have been trying for over twenty four hours to find the words that might be of some help, to be present to my families in a meaningful way. There are no words, there is no simple way to process this tragedy and make it okay.

What follows is the lesson I would share if The Family Program were able to meet today. I hope it is helpful and comforting. As always this is my attempt to model for parents ideas of how to teach their children. Each family is unique and I believe parents have within them the gift to know what is best for their children. In my search for wisdom, the most meaningful words for me come from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” Speak from the heart, speak with love and your words will be the right ones.

These families in a small Connecticut town most likely never imagined that such violence would ever visit them. Sandy Hook Elementary School seemed to be a wonderful environment for learning, staffed by caring people who had as recently as this year instituted new parameters for safety at their schools and were in a state of compliance and readiness. To some degree these factors intensify the anxiety of parents, of human beings, even more so. When you are doing everything right, when you work as a community to provide the best resources for your children to learn in a nurturing, safe environment how can things go so terribly wrong.

Over the past two days I have listened to many professionals in law, psychology and religious studies offer their best advice about how to address the attack on an elementary school in a seemingly idyllic setting. The consensus of this group is to answer only what is asked, let the child lead the discussion, and reassure that this is a singular event. As a generalization, these suggestions are fine and appropriate; however, no one who is in the position of trying to comprehend this atrocity and answer children’s questions about it finds these suggestions sufficient. As a trained marriage and family therapist I know these are the clinically correct responses, as a person and a parent it is not enough. The challenge and heartbreak is that there are no correct answers, there are no words that will ever make this okay, and there is no way to make sense of the senseless.  If we cannot wrap our own minds around what has happened in Newtown, how can we process it, explain it and make it okay for our children? If this horror shakes us at our very core and awakens every anxiety we have about safety personally,for our families, and those we love and care about how can we possibly find a way to communicate that everything is fine?

The questions that seem to be top of mind are as follows:

  • Why did this happen?
  • Why did that man want to kill those people?
  • Why did God let this happen?
  • Did this happen because those children/people were bad?
  • Can this happen to me?
  • Can this happen at my school/workplace?

While I defy anyone to answer any of these questions with absolute certainty, I can offer some suggestions as to how to best approach this conversation. I will try my best to offer advice as to how to speak with your children about tragedies that they are confronted with, keep in mind that these approaches are also often helpful in trying to process events ourselves. The first two points the professionals make are valid in that you should try to give short, specific answers to what the child is asking. Sometimes we over explain in the hope that we are covering all of the bases and giving the best information – when we do this we run the risk of providing too much information and perhaps adding to the stress and anxiety the child is feeling by introducing factors they were not previously considering.  We need to let the children lead the conversation in that often they need to take a small amount of information and process it before they can ask another question or take in more information. We can also guide the conversation to this singular event and use reminders that this is a unique situation and not one that should be expected in their own lives/schools/families. That being said, we are truly not addressing some of the larger questions, and by avoiding those questions we are avoiding an opportunity to share the comfort that faith can provide. For the very best definition of faith is to believe in something we cannot see, feel or prove but yet know to be true. In moments such as this when we are challenged to make sense of the senseless, faith may be our way to move forward.

  • Why did this happen? – While we can never understand something this horrible we do know that humans can make very bad choices. Sometimes because they are sick, sometimes because they are not loved, sometimes because they are so angry and hurt that they cannot see clearly. This act of violence had nothing to do with the victims, but had everything to do with the horrors inside this young man. All tragedies that happen when someone exerts violence on someone else comes from that place inside them where these factors exist and never, ever are the fault of the victim. Often the person who does such a thing doesn’t know the person they hurt, nothing the victim did or didn’t do made this happen.
  • Why did that man want to kill those people? – We honestly don’t know, and may never know the answer to this question. This young man had anger, hurt, rage and confusion inside him and it came out in this very horrible way. When people are in that place they act without thinking – he acted out because of what was inside him and not because of anything those children or adults did or didn’t do.
  • Why did God let this happen? – One of the hardest things that children and adults struggle with is the idea of free will, that we in our humanity are capable of making choices on our own regardless of the impact on ourselves or others. If we could understand this clearly as adults, perhaps it might be easier to explain to children. The basic concept that God created all and allows all to exist, rightly or wrongly, directed by their own free will is a higher thinking, abstract theory. It calls us to move beyond what many often blame on God, or use God to support their own beliefs and prejudices and asks us to take responsibility for our own actions. On a higher thinking level we believe in God, or an all encompassing being of creation, and accept that there have been lessons for us to follow to be good, kind, compassionate people who live in service to others. This is the faith I know, this is the faith I teach. This faith allows for acceptance of all, respect for all and forgiveness without expectation. If we can find a way to accept this in our hearts, we can then explain in a simple way that God creates and loves, but allows humans to make their own choices. When these choices are bad or evil, God does not stop them in the same way that God does not take credit for the good and brave choices people make. We are all offered the same choices and lessons, what we do with them is essentially up to us.
  • Did this happen because those children/people were bad? – These children and adults were not killed because they were bad or did anything wrong. Their families were not bad or did anything wrong. This happened because of the anger, illness, hurt and confusion within one young man.
  • Can this happen to me?  Can this happen at my school/workplace? – People die when they are very old, very sick or when there is a terrible accident/incident. The reason why this is so very horrible because it is so very rare to hear about someone doing this. We shouldn’t expect that this will happen to us, to our school or to someone we know and love. We may be afraid thinking about this, and it is normal to have fear and anxiety about the “what ifs”, but in time we will begin to trust that the people in our lives are doing all they can to keep us safe. Children can’t really grasp statistical data, and when adults are faced with tragedies such as this it is hard to distance the reality enough to be analytical. The true answer to this question is yes, it can happen to any of us. The reality is that the probability of it happening is very small. Right now the hurt, fear and sadness is too palpable and too fresh for us not to be fearful. Time and ritual are two healing factors that allow us to begin to lessen fear and anxiety. This week will be a rough one, hold each other close and allow one another to know that despite the fear there is love and faith that things will be okay. As humans that is really all we have in terms of guarantees.

While we feel the need to hold on tight and not let each other out of sight, healing begins by moving forward. Fear is lessened by being brave despite what you know. Acting on behalf of change, of making things better, of changing laws and standing up to ingnorance allows us to become strong again. Most importantly we need to express our love for each other, be kind to each other and be forgiving towards each other. Realizing that every day is a gift and believing that each of our lives, regardless of how long we live, is our time on earth to make a difference will allow us begin to live again not in fear but in love and purpose.





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2 Replies to “Families Dealing With Tragedy: How To Try To Make Sense of the Senseless”

  1. This question was emailed to me, I feel it is one that I would like to answer here.

    I do have one very basic question: My daughter (age 9/third grade) does not know about it. Should I tell her about it in case she hears about it at school/on the bus? Or should I wait & see if she brings it up?

    Thanks for any input…struggling a little with that one.

    1. I would say that you should address the tragedy in Newtown with your daughter in some way before tomorrow. I am certain the tragedy will be a topic of general discussion tomorrow, this week and in the immediate future. I am also sure that all schools will be reviewing their security, evacuation and emergency preparedness drills in light of this event.

      As a parent whenever we have the opportunity to direct a discussion such as this and offer our own framework and assistance in absorbing the news in whatever way we can we do a great service to our children. We also develop our children’s sense of security and trust when we are honest with them and send them into the world as prepared as we possibly can. As they hear information “out in the world”, some of it perhaps misinformation and/or exaggeration, it is comforting for your words to be in their heads to rely on. As you have developed a foundation for the discussion, they should know that they can come back to you to process new information, doubts and fears.

      At the younger ages, and in the simplest words of introduction, children can be told that something very bad happened at a school in another town. A young man who was very angry, confused, and not thinking clearly made a decision to hurt many people and himself. There were children and adults who were killed, and many who were kept safe by their teachers, adults in the school and the police and emergency responders. People are very sad that this happened, I am very sad about this and I am sure you are too. We can say a prayer for all of these people, their families and their town. We can say a prayer too for ourselves in our sadness and try to be extra kind to everyone around us. What happened is not something that happens everyday and we do not need to be afraid that it will be happening to us. We do need to listen to the teachers and adults at school when they teach us about being safe, in the same way we listen at home . We trust the adults in our lives to keep us as safe as they can.

      This basic information allows our children to be aware of the situation, without overloading them or making them even more anxious and fearful than they need to be. Your child may have questions of their own, they may share that they knew about this but didn’t want to upset you. Let them know that you are there for them, and that any time they have questions or need to talk about this you are there for them.

      I hope this is helpful, please do not hesitate to ask any questions you may have. I will do my best to be of help.

      Pat xo

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