Trying to voice the unspeakable

Tonight I had a conversation with my 5th grader about Newtown. I didn't want to say anything. I didn't want to tell him. I didn't think he needed to know. I didn't want to scare him. I didn't want to chip even further away at the innocence I see losing ground within him everyday. I wanted to keep watching America's Funniest Videos and read a longer chapter of Goblin Secrets and have extra dessert and go to bed and wake up and have a regular, boring Monday.


I know he will hear about it at school tomorrow. I don't know if the teachers will bring it up, but I know the kids will. Kids do. They are just becoming aware of the bigger world around them, especially when they're ten and eleven. So I decided to play offense. I decided to tell him the truth, answer his questions and to let him know that the things he hears from his friends or other kids at school may or may not be true. I thought about when I was kid and there was an unthinkable tragedy that touched our school. Not like this, but still gruesome and terrifying. There were (what I remember as several weeks, but it might have just been several days) that, once at school, we were not allowed to leave the classrooms unless it was the whole class together. If someone had to go somewhere like the nurse, we had to go with a buddy. It was a sort of proto-extended lockdown, I guess. The teachers were subdued, the kids animated with rumors.

Before I talked to my son I thought about how those rumors bounced around the halls like high bounce balls, smacking you in the face, knocking you down. I can't remember what grade I was in when all of that was happening at my school, but I do remember thinking that the other kids must have known more about the situation than I did. They didn't. We all had the same facts. But rumors were born. They are born. That is the nature of people, and it's the nature of trying to explain something terrible.

So I talked to my son tonight to try to protect him a little bit from whatever he might hear. It was a devastating conversation. He visibly paled when it dawned on him that the school in the faraway land of Connecticut was much like his own. He asked where the kids would go to school now. He asked if they would ever go back to their school, and expressed his hope that they would never, ever have to and that it would be torn down. He asked "Why?" many, many times. He asked who did it. He said it sounded like something you would read in a graphic novel. He asked if anything like this had ever happened before. He said he felt worried about going to school tomorrow, and that hiding in the corner couldn't save anyone from evil. (This statement came from the fact that they had had a lockdown drill at school on Friday, and part of the drill was hiding in the back corner of the classroom. After he said that I explained that hiding did in fact save a lot of people. I told him the teachers were heroes and saved so many students by following the protocols of their drills and hiding the kids.)  He asked if he could wake up his sister and give her an extra hug. He asked if we could not tell her about any of this. He said he wished he was our dog because dogs have simpler lives.

I did my best to answer his questions and to make him feel safe and calm. We talked about the national outpouring of grief. We talked about the President's repsonse (which my son did not watch, though I relayed a few of the broader points). We talked about how there's nothing we can do to ease the pain of the families who lost someone, but how, maybe by feeling our own pain we can try to show them that we would bear some of their burden if it was possible.

It tortures me that he feels less safe now. I feel terrible that he's up past his bedtime because he can't sleep for thinking about it. But I'm glad we talked about it before he was blindsided with it. I asked him to please not blindside anyone else.

I don't know if I handled this the way one is supposed to handle these things. My husband and I decided we would not say anything to our first grader. I am less sure if she'll hear about it in class and, to be perfectly honest, I cannot fathom how to broach the subject with her. I really just can't fathom any of it. If she asks questions, we'll answer them. But I can't bring it up with her. I just can't.

It was hard enough to talk to my fifth grader. It's hard to think about it at all.

One thought on “Trying to voice the unspeakable

  1. I too have been struggling with whether to tell my boys about the tragedy. They are in Kinder and 2nd-the ages of the children who were lost on Friday. I’m so torn up over all of this. I don’t want them to be afraid to go to school, but I also don’t want them to overhear what happened and be confused/scared. My husband feels we shouldn’t tell them-and since I’m so conflicted, I’m deferring to him for now. How I wish I could protect them from this-how I wish I could just keep them here in my arms, safe with me-but I know I can’t.


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