Saturday, December 15, 2012

No Words for Such a Tragedy

Beginning yesterday, just after my previous post about my work with a child homicide survivor, my phone lines and emails have been chaotically inundated with fallout from the mass murders in Connecticut.

I want to say publicly: I have no answers for such trauma. I have no directives, no real consolation. What can one offer at a time like this?

I will not publicly bring people together in a formal way without the express permission of the families affected by this. In my humble opinion, to do so without their consent is an overstep that may not be appropriately sacred for such a horror.

What I can offer is that people take this time to understand what it means to be traumatically bereaved, for self and for other.

What I can offer is some wisdom that comes, not from the DSM or any other book or manual about how people should and shouldn't react in such a time of incomprehensible suffering, but from the wisdom of the ages and cultures and from the bereaved themselves, the initiates:

Be careful of the questions we ask.

Be mindful of how we speak of this to others and to our children.

Be aware of how we show up in the world because of this.

Be circumspect about the ways in which we publicly mourn and share information.

Be sensitive to the suffering of these families by honoring their privacy.

Be attentive to our own losses and how this type of trauma reignites our sense of vulnerability and grief.

And so, quietly, quietly, quietly...  this is my way to pause and honor the families and children who were murdered and assaulted in their schools in both Connecticut and in Nanping, China, both on the same unforgettably painful morning on opposite ends of the globe:

I will sit in meditation and prayer for them. I will light my candle for them and burn sage. I will set intentions of kindness and compassion while holding their pain. I will pay attention to my words, my deeds, and my thoughts.  I will hold them all in my heart, leaving space for whatever of my own emotions may rise and fall in the aftermath of the unspeakable. I will be still, for them.

Then, if and when the families are ready to speak about their losses, we will be there to embrace them with unconditional love and allow them - perhaps join them - to honor their children in the way they want, according to their own way... as those of you who have suffered this type of loss know, 
time alone does not heal, contrary to popular belief. And they will likely need much support in the coming weeks and months and years. A parent's grief is timeless.

For the providers who have contacted me around the world and want to know how to support bereaved parents, your full presence and civic love is the greatest offering of all.  Here are some words of wisdom, not intended to direct or command, but rather intended to get us thinking about the ways in which we care for others:

We invite you: We invite you not to:
Show them your unconditional love and support for as long as they need it, even years later.

Do ask, "How are you really doing?"

Do remember that you can't take away their pain, but you can share it and help them feel less alone.

Do let your genuine concern and care show.

Do call the child by his or her name.

Do treat the couple equally. Fathers need as much support as mothers.

Do be listen, to run errands, to drive, help with the other children, or whatever else seems needed at the time.

Do say you are sorry about what happened to their child and about their pain.

Do accept their moods whatever they may be, you are not there to judge. Be sensitive to shifting moods.

Do allow them to talk about the child that has died as much and as often as they want.

Do offer practical aid or just drop off meals at the front door (careful not to disturb them).

Do talk about the special, endearing qualities of the child.

Do give special attention to the child's brother and sister--at the funeral and in the months to come (they too are hurt and confused and in need of attention which their parents may not be able to give).

Do reassure the parents that they did everything they could, that the care the child received was the best possible.

Do put on your calendar the birth and death date of the child and remember the family the following year(s). Remembering with them is important. They will never forget.

Do extend invitations to them. But understand if they decline or change their minds at the last minute. Above all continue to call and visit.

Do send a personal note or letter or make a contribution to a charity that is meaningful to the family.

Do read literature from the real experts (parents themselves) about the grief process of a bereaved parent to help you understand.
Don't avoid them and don't be afraid to talk to the parents. They do not have a communicable disease- they are mourning.

Don't be afraid to ask about the deceased child and to share memories.

Don't think that the age of the child determines his or her value and impact.

Don't be afraid to touch those who are mourning, as it can often be more comforting than words.

Don't avoid them because you feel helpless or uncomfortable, or don't know what to say.

Don't change the subject when they mention their child.

Don't push the parents through the grieving process, it takes a long time to heal and they never forget.

Don't encourage the use of drugs or alcohol.

Don't ask them how they feel if you aren't willing to listen.

When in doubt, don't say anything. Just be present and listen to their pain with love and compassion, nonjudgmentally.

Don't say you know how they feel.

Don't tell them what they should- or shouldn't- feel or do.

Don't try to find something positive in the child's death.

Don't point out that they have their other other children.

Don't say that they can always have another child.

Don't suggest that they should be grateful fo their other children.

Avoid the following cliches:

"Be brave, don't cry."

"It was God's will" or "it was a blessing."

"It's time to get on with your life.
You have to life for him/her." or "He/She wouldn't want you to be sad."

"God needed another flower or angel (or whatever) in his garden."

"At least he/she wasn't older."

"You must be strong for your other children."

"You're doing so well." or "You're so strong!"

"You're young, you'll get over it."

"Time will heal." 


Ginger said...

As a former terminal care nurse, I embrace and appreciate your wisdom. Thank you for sharing it.


Unknown said...

So, so, so true...from a mother who has two daughters and lost two sons.

KrystalK said...

I really wish everyone would follow this list of what to do and what to avoid. After my daughter died, some of the VERY closest people whom I thought would be there to support me, have and still do use every one of the "dont" list. Which in turn has really made this giref road that much more difficult. :(
My prayers are with the families in CT. </3

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments... we are all mourning with and for them, with and for ourselves.

caitsmom said...

Thank you for posting this. A helpful resource to share with others and a friendly reminder for me. This event has shattered once again that feeling of stasis I've acquired. I'm sure many bereaved parents had similar responses. Wishing it were different.

Dianne Gray said...

Genuine, thoughtful and beautifully stated, Joanne. Am sharing this blog post wherever I can. <3

Anonymous said...

Thank you Thank you (cannot say enough times!)
A lot of parents are also wondering how to talk to their children about this tragedy, having difficulty dealing with their own emotions of anger and grief at what has happened. This tragedy has affected individuals (directly and indirectly) but also become a familial and societal isssue too! Hope to see meaningful changes come thruough in reducing violence!!


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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