Tragedy struck again. Once more I planted myself by the television, flipping through the various news channels to hear the latest updates, with tears in my eyes and a pierced heart. It hurts, like a throbbing finger slammed in the door, especially when you know it’s inevitable that there will be another tragedy, another natural disaster, another act of hatred that will leave you teary eyed again.
What do I tell my seven-year-old granddaughter when she comes into my bedroom or sits next to me on the couch as I watch the news and catches snippets of the horrible events before I can find the remote to turn the channel? What do I tell her when she sees that I am a million sad miles away when she is showing me her latest gymnastic move and I miss it or asks why my eyes are red?
I remember when I was a child, eavesdropping on the whispered, somber conversations of my parents when tragedies unfolded in the news or with a family member. Not knowing what to do with the sadness that overtook me, I’d curl up in my bed and feign a stomachache so I could stay in the safety of my room cloaked under my covers with my teddy bears as my protectors.
My mother didn’t associate my fake illness with the enormity of what was going on around me. She didn’t realize that even if I hadn’t snooped and heard her conversations or listened to the news, I reacted to her own feelings/struggles as she tried to make sense or deal with a situation,meven when she tried to mask them.
What I needed then was for her to sit with me, push my bangs out of the way, and look deep into my eyes to explain what happened in terms I could comprehend. I needed her to not leave me out of the conversation and to answer all of my questions.
For by being left out, by everyone thinking that it was best if I knew nothing or as little as possible, I thought the worst. And for a child that is the worst. That feeling of dread stays with you, lingering through your teen years, through adulthood and through parenting your own children until you finally realize how damaging it is to your well-being.
Our children, like us, have a range of emotions that traverse through their bodies. Their sorrow, anger, frustration, uncertainty, and fear are on a different scale than ours, but it’s there and it will manifest into something else – a temper tantrum or clinginess if they are wee ones, or rebellion, addictions, or depression if they are older.
So what do I tell my seven-year-old granddaughter?
I first remind myself that there are no perfect words to say when tragedy strikes. If I am having a particularly difficult time, I google it on the computer and read some of the excellent suggestions on other blogs and parenting sites. A trip to my neighborhood library and a talk with my librarian has also helped me find the right book to address topics I have trouble discussing.
As a former preschool teacher I remember having to talk to a class of five-year-olds about 911, some of whose parents were caught in the aftermath and couldn’t get home. In the weeks following, children’s books played a vital role in helping them cope with their emotions.
I then explain to my granddaughter what happened in a way she can understand and ask her what she’s heard, what her friends may have told her, and clear up any misconceptions knowing how what transpires from her ears to her heart might unsettle her.
And I wait for her deluge of questions to come. They always do, sometimes hours later, when her parents are out running errands without her, or when I’m cooking dinner.
I try my best to answer them. I remind her of the good in the world, of the first responders and heroes and sheroes that helped save many people’s lives, and how we come together regardless of race or religion to help others each time a tragedy happens. I also encourage her to write to express her feelings.
One story she wrote was about the recent hurricanes in which she wished she had a magic wand to stop the flooding. Writing was cathartic for her and she felt empowered thinking of a way she could save others even if it was make-believe.
And always I reiterate to her, over a bowl of her favorite ice-cream or while we’re baking chocolate chip cookies, that although terrible things may happen in the world that shakes us up, we never let go of our hope for the world.
There will never be a script to read when it comes to helping our children deal with a tragedy. So my suggestion is to speak from the heart because when you do those words will be just right – your child can then express what is in his or hers.
There is nothing wrong with wishing upon a star with your own imaginary magic wand for a miracle, like the one my granddaughter wished she had in her story. Just like the lyrics to the song by the late Louis Armstrong: “What a wonderful world” this would be if we could.