There was just no way I could write something funny today. No way I could write about a ride. No way I could even talk about the Grand Slam 2 Fundraiser. Because like everyone I know, I’m too messed up — horrified, stunned, sad, angry, scared, dismayed, you name it — over the killings in Connecticut to think meaningfully about anything else.
So I’m going to write a little bit about this. And see if I can, by trying to order the jumble in my mind into sentences, make some sense.
Sick to My Stomach
I was driving to a company Christmas lunch and white elephant exchange when I found out about about what had happened. I called Lisa — who was out doing some Christmas shopping — and told her what I had heard.
Then we just took turns saying variations of “I can’t believe this,” and “Why would anyone do something so unspeakable?” The fact was — and is — there was simply no way we could understand or grasp something so unimaginably evil.
The rest of the day, this horrible thing kept coming to mind. I’d push it out — unable to understand, unable to help, physically ill at the realization there could be someone so perfectly vile as to kill. Over and over. Or — even worse, though I would never have imagined this to be possible — to kill children. People who were just starting to become their individual selves. Just starting to reveal who they were to their parents.
I kept thinking how much like my own children’s school this thing happened at. Then — like millions and millions of parents, I suspect — I felt a little wave of panic and wished my twins would get home soon.
What I Know and What I Don’t
The whole weekend I kept thinking about what this killing. I thought about the kids. The guns. The parents. The families. The killer. The loss. I knew that it was on my mind too much to not write about it when Monday arrived, but what do I have to say that’s worth saying?
I know enough about how people feel about guns and gun laws and the second amendment that I know I don’t want to talk about that. Yes, I know it needs talking about, but I’ll leave that to others; it’s too complex a topic — and too politically loaded — for someone like me to approach.
I know enough about mental illness to know this isn’t something I can really talk about with any authority either.
But I do know a little bit about loss. I’ve been through tragic loss — of a much different kind, but still: a tragic loss. And I have the sense that most people, at some point, at least get frighteningly close to someone who’s been through a terrible, incomprehensible loss.
Here are a few things I remember. Maybe some of them will help. Maybe some of them won’t. I’m just one person, and what helped me might not be much help at all to another.
I don’t presume that this will help anyone remotely involved in the Connecticut tragedy. But maybe it will be useful to you as you deal with others’ loss, or maybe loss of your own.
Or maybe it won’t help at all. I don’t know.
The night Susan died, one of my friends called, asking if I’d like him to come over. I said “no,” and I meant it honestly. I didn’t want to be with anyone. Didn’t want anyone to see me. Didn’t have the energy to see anyone.
Another one of my friends just came over. He didn’t ask. As it turns out, having a friend there amidst all the family was good. I don’t remember what we talked about or whether we talked at all, but it was really good to have him there.
So which is the right way? Both, I think. If you’re the kind of person who calls and asks, do. If you’re the kind of person who can just show up, do. Both are signs of solidarity.
Everyone’s impulse is to ask how they can help. I will tell you that I hated that question. It required me to do so much thinking and deciding. What do I need help with? Am I willing to admit that I need help with this? Is this a person who I trust to handle something I need done if I ask for that help, or will I just be exchanging the work of doing something for the work of managing the doing of that thing?
Does this person really want to help, or is this just an offer of condolence?
On the other hand, when a friend of mine — who manages a lawn care company — said, “I’m going to take care of your lawn for the rest of the summer, OK?” I was incredibly grateful.
I think there’s a lesson there. If you have an offer of help to make, try to make it concrete — what you’re going to do (in particular if it’s something you have expertise in). And make the offer as a statement, rather than as a question (“Do you need help with anything?”)
Also, remember that offers of help tend to come in a giant flood at first, and slow to a trickle within a week or a month or whatever. As your loved on goes from being overwhelmed with offers to simply being overwhelmed, a renewed offer of help a few weeks or months down the road might be more helpful than one right away.
This is one topic I almost decided to leave out, because it’s as potentially inflammatory as the guns and politics part of this discussion I’m trying to steer clear of.
Which is maybe ironic, because steering clear of religion is actually the piece of advice I have to give.
You may have good reason to ignore this piece of advice — if you’re strongly religious and you are absolutely certain that the person you’re comforting is also strongly religious, for one example. Or if the person you’re comforting has initiated talk of faith.
However, unless your confidence on the person’s feelings toward religion are absolute, you might want to steer clear. Your world view may not be their world view, and this isn’t the time to put them in the awkward position of deciding whether to smile and listen to something they find offensive.
Or — supposing the person you’re talking to is ostensibly even of the same religion as you — you don’t know whether the person might currently be feeling some serious anger or at least ambivalence toward your deity at the moment. Is this really a good moment to ask for a show of faith?
This may be a good time to — instead of assuring this person of the power of prayer and letting them know that you personally have plenty of faith — pray on their behalf and let it work its power without you telling them about it.
On the Bright Side
Maybe some people really do get cheered up when others try to find a silver lining to a tragedy. For myself, only my inability to yell at well-meaning people kept me from shouting, “Don’t try to tell me that this death came with perks.”
Eventually, many people — including me, I hope — can take something horrible and use it for a catalyst for good. But don’t presume that anything good comes bundled, no charge, with any tragedy.
Telling Your Own Stories
For me, it was helpful to hear people who had actually been through the same thing tell me “You’ll get through it; you’ll be OK.”
It was not helpful, on the other hand, when people simply knew of a similar tragedy, and thought they were showing solidarity or understanding by recounting it. I was already so distraught and angry and worried about the future that every time someone told me their story, I’d just hear that they knew someone who had endured something worse than I had, and had handled it better than I was.
Saying “I’m Sorry”
What makes a tragedy a tragedy — and not just a problem — is that it can’t just be fixed. There’s not much you can say that will make it better. And saying “I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem like it’s enough.
But you know what? I appreciated every single person who just said that. An acknowledgment that something terrible has happened along with an expression of sympathy.
It’s not much, which is part of the nature of tragedy and loss. No matter how badly you want to do enough, you just can’t do much to help.
But it’s something. And sometimes that has to be enough.
PS: My sister Jodi has a good piece today on what she’s thinking and doing after this attack. Read it here.