On Friday, I took part in a survey which asked parents of young kids how they teach and instill morals and values to their children–what tools and resources, if any, they use to handle tough situations. I answered honestly, saying that most of the tough conversations I’ve had with my kids so far have been reactive versus proactive, like when one of my best friends, Rachel, suddenly died last April during a routine medical procedure, or when my 5-year-old daughter exhibited a touch of “mean girl” behavior at school…or was on the receiving end of a little bullying. In each instance, there wasn’t time to do research–I just had to figure out how to answer the tough questions or grapple with the challenge as we went, following up with parenting websites and blogs later.
One of the last questions the researcher asked was, “What is the the discussion I most fear having to have with my kids?” My answer: “A school shooting/mass shooting, because if that happened, I couldn’t protect them. And nowadays, they can happen anywhere and at any time. And that terrifies me.”
Late Saturday evening, that far-feeling reality came to be in my beloved adopted hometown of Kalamazoo–a safe, eclectic, city where everyone knows everyone and community is ingrained in our DNA. On February 20, 2016, we became a statistic: the 42nd mass shooting in the first 52 days of the year. Eight people were shot–six fatally–in what is our community’s worst nightmare. And, in addition to the tragedy our tight-knit community collectively faces, the nightmare hit close to home, as two of the victims were family members of my colleague: her beloved husband and teenage son were killed.
As the news unfolded Sunday, I couldn’t help but cry. We kept the TV off at home, relying mostly on social media for information, to protect our 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son from the images and sounds all over the news. But unfortunately, she had heard me telling my husband that my coworker’s family had been victims–and even at her young age, she understands what death means since losing Rachel; she asks me a lot of tough questions.
“Mommy, did someone die?”
My voice was heavy, but I told her yes. Because as much as I want to protect my kids, death is a fact of life and I do believe honesty is the best policy. I knew she didn’t need to know the details or how many people were killed, so I just told her that we were very sad for our friends who lost people they loved, and left it at that.
She hasn’t asked anything since–though, I wouldn’t be surprised if the questions come later as she hears more. Children are intuitive; they know when something is wrong and our little town is not right in this moment: We all feel it. Her teachers at school, the waitresses at restaurants we visit, the person at the checkout at Sam’s Club, the UPS driver she looks for each day–we all feel this enormous weight of loss.
But through our pain and confusion and even anger, there is hope, and there is love–so much love in our little community. I sat in the interfaith vigil last night at a local church, surrounded by hundreds of fellow community members of all different races and religions, listening to our mayor and various clergy address the congregation. At one point, we were all asked to hold our neighbor’s hands on each side of us in prayer–creating a chain of hope. Fingers threading strangers fingers, palms gripping tightly with people we may never meet again.
And no matter our differing faiths–we were united by this act of solidarity. We were–and are–#kalamazoostrong. We’ll bring meals and gather to remember the lives that have been lost. We’ll link arms. We’ll talk to the neighbor we don’t normally make an effort to chat with. Invite a friend we haven’t seen in a while over for coffee. Help that coworker with a project outside of work because we can. We’ll find ways to connect with one another, because that’s how this special community is.
As Jews, we believe we are made in the divine image of God. Looking around that church last night, I saw that holy love, that light emitting from each person sitting there. And that love saw no boundaries. No limitations.
We were one.
And I know through our shared hurt, we will heal.
How about you? Do you have any tips for coping with a tragedy like this, or talking to kids about tragedies/death? They are welcome in the comments.
For readers interested in making a direct donation to the Smith family, Laurie Smith’s employer, VML, has set up the KzooLove Fund. ALL proceeds will go to the family. Though donations are not tax-deductible to donors, the Smith family will receive the donations tax-free.
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