I can remember several days in my lifetime when something so tragic happened somewhere in the world that all I could do in response was to cry about it. In a relative sense, the events happened to people far away from me and my everyday routine, but their story somehow reminded me of my own and, because of that bit of familiarity, I realized that it very easily could have happened to me or to someone I love dearly. Yesterday was one of those days.
The moment I drove into the carpool lane of my first-grader’s school, I imagined the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Not even for a full second could I imagine what it would be like to hear that my own child had been tragically killed while at his school. Even that thought for a fraction of a second brought me to sobbing tears. I imagined at that moment, that perhaps my tears could somehow share and relieve the burden of immense pain that was the reality for those families of children and adults who were killed in the Connecticut school tragedy. I prayed that it could be so.
There have been other school shootings that brought the same painful feelings: Columbine and Virginia Tech, for instance. Then there was the movie theater shooting this year. Otherwise, I remember the numbing grief that I and so many others felt after 9-11 in 2001. In this Information Age, we clamber for the facts as these news stories surface. Even when we can’t get the full story up front, we receive the bits and pieces as they come in and begin to stitch them together. We busy ourselves answering the question, “What happened?” while the answer we really seek is to the question, “Why did this happen?” It becomes obvious that our attempt to answer the “why?” question is really an effort to somehow control events in the future to prevent anything similar from ever happening again. After seeing several of these events unfold, it seems clear that we won’t ever be able to fully prevent them as long as life exists on earth as we know it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find and take preventive measures, though.
As a mother and a children’s minister, my thoughts quickly turn to the questions and reactions of the children in my care. How on earth can such evil be explained to an innocent child without destroying his or her sense of security and trust? Having three children of my own, I am keenly aware that each child responds differently to the same situation and that children can surprise us with their profound perspectives that many times, in comparison to our own jaded perspectives, sound more like wisdom than our grown-up conclusions often do.
The mistake I think parents make most is that we tend to believe that our children require answers from us to all the questions in every situation – even those situations for which we can find no answers. Another common mistake is that parents don’t really listen closely to the concerns their children actually express. Instead, we tend to say things in the midst of difficult situations that attempt to answer our own questions or discomforts, and many times it comes in the form of pat answers and clichés. These approaches are equally unhelpful in my opinion. I believe it is most helpful when we express our own pain and grief honestly without trying to answer the unanswerable.
In our state of vulnerability, we remember our humanity. For those of us who profess faith in God, we also remember His divinity and the broken-ness of our world. In tragedy, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate true faith to our children. We do this, not by having the answers but by grieving openly while placing our hope for mercy and comfort in the God we don’t see. In moments when we look up from our grieving we begin to see God at work in the middle of a tragic situation through the courage of a teacher or the prayers of a child or the unspeakable peace of a father who has lost his only son.
As we begin to process our own grief, it becomes apparent that tragedies of this magnitude do not happen only to those unfamiliar, faraway people who are directly affected. These tragedies are our very own. The impact of loss is felt immediately inside us. Also inside us, we sense God nudging us toward others who need our help. We pray for those who are hurting and then do something to help those who might cross our path. When we can’t give answers, we learn to give ourselves. And pray. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”