I know the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary has shaken the entire nation. Many of my clients and friends have expressed that they have a renewed perspective on their family relationships, and also a profound sadness that has surprised them in its intensity. Some also shared they have an unshakeable sense of anxiety that something like this could happen to their own children.
Coping with feelings like these can be incredibly difficult. Many people wonder, is it wrong to feel so sad when this didn’t happen to my immediate family or social circle? Is it okay to enjoy my own children when so many parents have lost theirs? Am I a terrible person for not enjoying my own children today when so many parents have lost theirs? How can I send my kids out into the world when it feels so unsafe?
First, let’s start by establishing that any reaction you are having is fine. If you feel scared, angry, sad, or relieved it wasn’t you, that is okay. If you feel rage or compassion toward the gunman, either are fine, both are fine. If you feel anxious about the world, or safe in the world, both reactions are fine. There is nothing wrong with feeling whatever you are feeling.
Now you get to decide if you want to live from those feelings. Making choices based on fear or anger is usually not helpful. Sometimes it can be, but often not.
Through my work as a marriage and family therapist, I have learned that much of coping with the difficulties of life is being able to hold two diametrically opposed concepts and know that they are both true.
The world is a scary, unsafe place filled with danger. It is also an incredibly safe place filled with love, kindness and beauty.
Let’s agree there is danger in the world. We were reminded of that last Friday, and we will be reminded of that again. Cars crash, buildings burn, storms demolish homes. But if we focus on that danger, and miss out on the other reality, that the world is filled with love and light, our world will grow very small. Maybe some of you have seen the Mister Rogers quote about “looking for the helpers.” He tells the story of how his mother taught him, when he saw scary things, to look for the helpers. To regain some healthy perspective, notice how many “helpers” responded on Friday. Countless firefighters, police officers, clergy, and other service workers were on the scene. Notice how many teachers, staff, and students were brave “helpers.” The amount of love, the amount of goodness in the world on that day, at that school, far outweighs the horror of one individual. We feel pain so acutely, and the loss of life and destruction he caused is so heavy, it is easy to miss the incredible amount of good present in that school on that day.
The world is no more dangerous today than it was on Thursday a week ago. It feels more dangerous, but the reality is, we are still, in general, living in a safe world. Here is what I suggest:
- Turn off your TV and stop checking FB and Twitter and your News App. The constant barrage of information by the media is overwhelming and unhealthy for us. It is re-traumatizing. Check once a day to see if there is new information. Read the memorials of the children and staff on your news feed once a day. Allow yourself to honor the people involved in the tragedy, but give yourself breathing room to comfort yourself and protect yourself from too much information.
- Enjoy the new perspective you have about your family and friends, but don’t expect yourself to feel that gratitude 24/7 for the rest of your life. You are human, and you have a range of feelings. Your kids need to know you love them and cherish them, and they also need to know it is okay for them to move through the world, taking risks and making mistakes. They need love, and they need discipline. For one family, it may be a healthy response to walk your first grader to the bus stop one driveway away because you want to cherish the time with her. For another family, that may create more anxiety and not allow the child to figure out how to cope with her separation anxiety and build a sense of autonomy. Know which family you are and give your kids what they need.
- Acknowledge any fearful or difficult thoughts and feelings you may be having, take a moment to experience them and then soothe them, and ask yourself what other truth you need to hold onto. “I can’t stand sending my kids off to school—what if this happens to them?” can be held right next to, “the world is still a very safe place” and you can comfort yourself with a few statistics about how many children go off to school each day and come home safely. This does not dishonor the children who died last Friday. This reminds you of the reality of how safe your children are.
I hope you will allow yourself to live from a place of abundance: there is plenty of love, plenty of time, and plenty of safety in the world. I hope you will allow the perspective you have gained recently to inform your decisions about how you cherish your family, friends, and time on this earth. And I hope you will give yourself a break when you don’t.
Now go and hug your kids from a place of love and abundance, not from a place of fear. It’s a different hug, and you and your kids will feel the difference.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.comfor useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.