After hearing about the massacre of children and adults in a Connecticut elementary school, my heart ached for the families involved. The scope of their agony went beyond my imagination. In response to the killings, many parents commented about wanting to hug their children extra tight that night. While I could clearly understand why people felt that way, I realized I did not have the same reaction.
At first, I felt strange and wondered why I did not have this intense feeling about hugging my children. What was wrong with me?
I slowly understood that it was not that I didn’t have the desire to hug my kids extra tight, but that this feeling was nothing new for me. I have felt that way every day. I have always hugged them often and tightly. Why? It is not because I love my children more than other parents love their kids, but because I already live with fear.
Although I cannot know how the parents in Newtown are feeling, I can relate to the agony of losing a child. I learned about death’s unpredictable path when our son was stillborn. When I say good-bye to my children, I worry that something will happen. So I hug them tight many times a day. Every day I tell them how much they are loved.
Even if I could forget my own grief, I’m reminded through others how death can come unexpectedly and tragically. In my research, I listen to people’s stories of death, loss, and grief. However, they also tell of beautiful moments of joy.
The horror and magnitude of this December school shooting is beyond words. There is not an explanation that will make us feel better. There is not an answer that will assure us it won’t happen again. We cannot control people and events around us. We can take precautions, and we should. We can make changes in our society that might help prevent violence, and we should. But we will not be able to completely stop violence and death from happening again. We also cannot stop car accidents and natural disasters. So how do we live in the face of that reality?
Some of you may be thinking that facing fear every day sounds like an awful way to live. It is hard. I agree. But I have also learned a lot from fear and death. For example, we can turn fear into motivation for how we live and love.
Turn good-byes into opportunities to tell people that you care about them.
Make each day count and reflect on how you want to best use your life.
Take notice of beauty in routine events or mundane details.
Remember to pray for others and help those around you.
Be thankful for today.
It is not just fear that lingers after this tragedy, but we grieve for those parents whose children were slain. It can be hard to carry that sadness. The Monday after the shooting, as I walked my first grader to her room at school, I wondered how long it would be before I could look at her class without thinking of the first graders who were killed. There is a new heaviness there, but I think it is appropriate. Looking at their sweet faces reminds me to pray for the Newtown families, the children who survived but are traumatized, and our local students and teachers. It also reminds me to reflect on what we can do to help in other situations.
Even while remembering tragedy and grief, we can continue to live our lives. We can carry joy and grief together. If we think that we can experience only one emotion at a time, we may do what we can to avoid others’ pain and grief in an effort to find happiness. Discovering that we can still find joy in the midst of suffering not only helps with our own healing, but makes it more likely that we are willing to enter other people’s pain.
Maybe I could fear less, but I am fearless in loving my children. Some people may tell me I don’t have enough faith if I fear, but faith is what helps me keep living and loving. I have come to see that fear is not all bad. Without some fear, one may easily become too complacent, busy, or consumed with less important matters. When my baby died, I learned a lot about love. His death helped me realize how deep pain can go, but also how precious life is. I try to honor his life by how I live and love. Perhaps we can honor the lives of those precious children in Connecticut in a similar way.
When my girls are giggling at night, past their bedtime, I know I should tell them to be quiet and go to sleep. But I let them giggle a little longer, and I listen to that precious sound. When I see my girls cuddling together, reading or talking, I pause and watch them. I study their faces and enjoy the sight. I may have some fear about tomorrow, but I treasure today.
Nancy Berns is author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.