The nation froze on the morning of April 20, 1999, when two troubled teenagers opened fire on their classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in the Denver suburbs, very near where I live. At the time, my oldest son, Josh, was just a few months from starting kindergarten.
On December 14, 2012, the nation froze again as a deeply disturbed 20-year-old killed his mother and then massacred 20 first-graders and six school staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. My son Josh is now about to graduate from high school. Thirteen years, from kindergartner to senior, one child’s school years book-ended by unfathomable horror.
The image of terrified children fleeing Columbine High School with hands in the air is etched forever in my brain. The only way I could wrap my head around what I saw on TV that day was to reassure myself that it would never happen again. But it did.
In the years between Columbine and Sandy Hook, there have been 145 school shootings in this country, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In my little corner of Colorado, there have been two since Columbine. One at Platte Canyon High School, and another at Deer Creek Middle School. All three of my children go to or have gone to Deer Creek — and one of the girls shot and wounded that day lives up the street from us.
As a reporter who covered the aftermath of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, I know these things remain statistically rare. As a mother, I find little comfort in statistics. I remember the first time my kids came home from school, probably no older than those first-graders at Sandy Hook, and matter-of-factly announced, “We were in lockdown today, Mommy.” Over the years they told me about the drills to teach them to turn out the lights, stay quiet, and go to the back of the room and huddle behind upturned desks if someone burst in with a gun. They didn’t seem particularly alarmed. The precaution became woven into their childhoods, while I, on the other hand, wanted to throw up.
In the wake of Sandy Hook, nearly every news outlet in the country had a story about how parents should talk to their kids. But I wondered, how do we talk to ourselves? “It’s something that hasn’t been addressed much, but should be,” says Elena Jeffries, Ph.D., a P&C contributor and psychologist in Millburn, NJ, who specializes in children and family issues.
As parents we think we must be strong and brave for our children, even if it means denying our own feelings of shakiness. Jeffries says the Sandy Hook shooting awakened a universal dread of not being able to protect your child. As a parent of a first-grader herself, Jeffries held her own emotions in check the first day she dropped her daughter off at school after the shooting. Then she collapsed into tears after the car door closed.
Jeffries’s advice is to give yourself permission to feel what you feel, including terror and fury. It’s not healthy to deny your grief or think that just because the tragedy did not strike your family directly that you’re not entitled to mourn. Even several weeks later, don’t be surprised if sadness arises unexpectedly, and you find yourself consumed with the unimaginable loss of those little ones all over again.
“Part of being a good parent is not having it all together all the time and letting kids watch you work through it,” says P&C contributor Michelle Anthony, Ph.D., a development psychologist in Denver, CO, who also specializes in families. So, if your children ask, explain that you feel sad or nervous, while reassuring them that you’re okay — and they are, too.
What parents desperately want is to feel in control in a world that seems out of control. If that means being overly protective with your kids in the short term, do it. Or channel your fear into action, such as checking your school’s safety plan or getting more involved in your community. Donating to a victims fund can stave off feelings of helplessness. What works for me is spending extra time hanging with my kids.
The truth is that we can’t operate in hyper-vigilance for long. The everyday stuff intrudes — as it should. “Time may not heal all wounds, but it helps,” says Jeffries. “Today, by all odds, will be a safe day. Tomorrow, too,” she says, adding that as time moves forward, anxiety eases. If you feel dread creeping back, use history as proof that your upended world will right itself.
Supposedly we as a nation have reached a tipping point. Washington has vowed change. As we wait to see, here’s my hope: That someday this dark time of tiny coffins will become just another thing to be studied with bewildered disgust, like Jim Crow laws or women not being able to vote. And that my children’s children will look back on this period and ask: What was wrong with those people?