Family Matters

Trying to Make Sense of Tragedy: Why the Sandy Hook Shooting Is So Painful for All of Us

The survivors of the Sandy Hook tragedy: how children and families are coping

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Mourners react as they stand in front of a memorial for victims of the recent mass shooting in Sandy Hook village in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012.

One six-year-old boy who managed to escape from a room where a gunman was shooting at his classmates is apparently afraid of the doorbell. He fears it might be the “bad man” coming to get him, so his parents have put up a sign asking visitors not to ring the bell. Another child, who hid in a school bathroom, is now scared to use the bathroom on his own.

As the mournful facts behind the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School continue to unfold, pictures of most of the bright-eyed, dimpled victims and the adults who died protecting them have made their way online. Young survivors are trying to make sense of the tragedy, posing heart-breaking questions: why did they have to die? Why can’t I see them? Does it hurt when you die?

(PHOTOS: Newtown: Photos from the Scene)

Young kids — all the children in the school were under age 10, and those killed were reported to be 6 and 7 years old — inhabit a very different psychological space from adults and teens. “Little kids see the world in black and white,” says Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Health. “Their world is very literal. There are rules and you can’t break rules, but this broke all kinds of rules.”

One of the most sacrosanct maxims is that school is supposed to be a safe place, where learning and exploration are encouraged, says Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. When kids are attacked when they expect to feel protected, “it’s a breakdown in our social fabric.”

(MORE: Am I Safe? Talking to Your Kids About the Sandy Hook School Shooting)

The youngest kids affected — particularly kindergarteners — are just starting to construct logical narratives about things that happen to them. Something as incomprehensible as a school shooting puts them at a disadvantage. “As much as we grapple to try to understand something this overwhelming, they struggle more,” says Briggs. “They are incredibly dependent on their families, their parents, their teachers and their caregivers, who will all have to string together a story to help these children make a little bit of sense about this in a way that is developmentally appropriate.”

The biggest challenge is to restore a sense of safety to children who watched their friends die. One of the young survivors at Sandy Hook lived through the shooting by pretending to be dead and fooling the gunman, according to her pastor. “She ran out of the school building covered from head to toe with blood and the first thing she said to her mom was, Mommy, I’m OK but all my friends are dead,” Pastor Jim Solomon told ABC News.

Death can be a hard concept for very young kids to grasp. For older kids with a more nuanced understanding, what happened at Sandy Hook is unsettling evidence that not everyone dies after living a long and full life. Parents can help by explaining death in a matter-of-fact way, noting that people who die are not in pain; they’re not hungry or thirsty because their bodies no longer work. While they’re no longer around to see or play with, they should be remembered and talked about.

Parents can also encourage this remembrance by supporting children’s natural instinct to help others; kids may want to draw a picture for the parents of a friend who died or write a thank you note to their teacher or visit the police officers who helped usher them to safety. “They will never get over this, but you find ways to get through this,” says Gurwitch. “That is the goal: to get through this.”

It’s also important for parents to appreciate that getting through a traumatic experience happens in different ways for different kids. It can be normal for misbehavior to peak in the coming days and weeks; it’s a way for children to express their fear and anxiety. Experts advise maintaining family rules — if it wasn’t okay to hit your brother a week ago, it’s not okay to do it now — while being extra-compassionate. “Parents should be more patient because children are stressed,” says Gurwitch.

(MORE: Seattle Shootings: Six People Dead in One Day. What’s Behind the Violence?)

And it’s not just the children who are feeling the strain. When alleged gunman Adam Lanza, 20, took aim at two classrooms full of first-graders, it upended the belief that something like this wouldn’t happen to children so young. Elementary school is where we gently cocoon our baby-talking 5-year-olds, some of whom still cry for mommy during their first few weeks, as they take their first steps toward becoming big kids. As parents, we think that elementary school is safe.

Alas, they’re not. In 2000, a 6-year-old boy shot and killed a 6-year-old girl at their school in Michigan. In 2010, a special-education teacher was killed at a Tacoma, Wash., elementary school; earlier this year, an 8-year-old in Bremerton, Wash., was critically wounded by a classmate. And last year, a Houston kindergartener injured himself and two other children when he brought a gun to school.

“When something like this happens, it’s a violation of our expectations of how things should be and how we should treat each other,” says Emanuel Maidenberg, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA who specializes in anxiety. “It’s even more disturbing because it violates our basic fundamental values that children are to be protected and cherished.”

Children, for all their I-can-do-it-myself mentality, are incredibly dependent on the adults in their lives to take care of them. When tragedy strikes and we are unable to protect them, it’s a crisis for everyone. “Children are relatively helpless and they rely on us to help make their world safe,” says Briggs. “It’s especially heartbreaking when we can’t.”

In the days after the Oklahoma City bombing, which leveled a daycare and splashed heartbreaking images of bloodied toddlers across newspapers’ front pages, many parents of surviving children reported that their kids would no longer stay in their own beds at night. The children had a harder time falling asleep and a harder time staying asleep; when they awoke in the dark, they climbed under their parents’ blankets for comfort. At a different time, those parents might have marched their kids right back to their own beds — but they didn’t. “Many, many parents wanted them in their beds so they could hold them and touch them and know that they have the blessing of being able to hold their child at night,” says Gurwitch.

It’s easy to imagine that Sandy Hook parents — and even those far away who didn’t directly experience tragedy — are now feeling the same.

(MORE: A Florida Judge Says It’s O.K. for Pediatricians to Ask About Guns)

26 comments
Kennedy Wanderley
Kennedy Wanderley

Whilst were Palestinians or Afghans' children who was been dying by the use of modern american weapons I didn't saw any commotion or motion from american people.

Kennedy Wanderley
Kennedy Wanderley

There's no sense in all. The inconvenient truth is that there's in american blood one incontrolable thirst by wars, weapons and deaths. The sole difference here is that this horrendous tragedy, happened in your yard.

Patrick Onesty
Patrick Onesty

Word's from a Father who lost his daughter in COLUMBINE 12 YEARS AGO!! Guess our national leaders didn't expect this. On Thursday, Darrell Scott, the father of Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was invited to address the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee. What he said to our national leaders during this special session of Congress was painfully truthful. They were not prepared for what he was to say, nor was it received well. It needs to be heard by every parent, every teacher, every politician, every sociologist, every psychologist, and every so-called expert! These courageous words spoken by Darrell Scott are powerful, penetrating, and deeply personal. There is no doubt that God sent this man as a voice crying in the wilderness.. The following is a portion of the transcript: "Since the dawn of creation there has been both good & evil in the hearts of men and women. We all contain the seeds of kindness or the seeds of violence. The death of my wonderful daughter, Rachel Joy Scott, and the deaths of that heroic teacher, and the other eleven children who died must not be in vain. Their blood cries out for answers." "The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used.. Neither was it the NCA, the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cain's heart." "In the days that followed the Columbine tragedy, I was amazed at how quickly fingers began to be pointed at groups such as the NRA. I am not a member of the NRA. I am not a hunter. I do not even own a gun. I am not here to represent or defend the NRA - because I don't believe that they are responsible for my daughter's death. Therefore I do not believe that they need to be defended. If I believed they had anything to do with Rachel's murder I would be their strongest opponent." "I am here today to declare that Columbine was not just a tragedy, it was a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies! Much of the blame lies here in this room. Much of the blame lies behind the pointing fingers of the accusers themselves. I wrote a poem just four nights ago that expresses my feelings best." Your laws ignore our deepest needs, Your words are empty air. You've stripped away our heritage, You've outlawed simple prayer. Now gunshots fill our classrooms, And precious children die. You seek for answers everywhere, And ask the question "Why?" You regulate restrictive laws, Through legislative creed. And yet you fail to understand, That God is what we need! "Men and women are three-part beings. We all consist of body, mind, and spirit. When we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our make-up, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice, and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc. Spiritual presences were present within our educational systems for most of our nation's history. Many of our major colleges began as theological seminaries. This is a historical fact. What has happened to us as a nation? We have refused to honor God, and in so doing, we open the doors to hatred and violence. And when something as terrible as Columbine's tragedy occurs -- politicians immediately look for a scapegoat such as the NRA. They immediately seek to pass more restrictive laws that contribute to erode away our personal and private liberties. We do not need more restrictive laws. Eric and Dylan would not have been stopped by metal detectors. No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre. The real villain lies within our own hearts." "As my son Craig lay under that table in the school library and saw his two friends murdered before his very eyes, he did not hesitate to pray in school. I defy any law or politician to deny him that right! I challenge every young person in America , and around the world, to realize that on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School prayer was brought back to our schools. Do not let the many prayers offered by those students be in vain. Dare to move into the new millennium with a sacred disregard for legislation that violates your God-given right to communicate with Him. To those of you who would point your finger at the NRA -- I give to you a sincere challenge.. Dare to examine your own heart before casting the first stone! My daughter's death will not be in vain! The young people of this country will not allow that to happen!" - Darrell Scott

Elaine N Lala
Elaine N Lala

We need gun control now, Laraine Isoldi Scalia aagrees

Bingkylove
Bingkylove

@TIME I definitely agree on this statement The biggest challenge is to restore a sense of safety to children who watched their friends die.

soulrunsdeep
soulrunsdeep

@TIME Such a #tragedy! How can you possibly make sense of something so #horrific? My heart is broken for all these victims.

reinefigaro
reinefigaro

@TIME Little innocent, harmless children were involved.

loveluxepink
loveluxepink

@TIME bc the victims were young innocent kids. Some ppl have kids, work w/ kids…regardless children dying from a senseless act, is horrible.

candles_in_dark
candles_in_dark

@TIMEHealthland @brochman It makes us question and re-evaluate the safety and security of our children, while we hold ourselves accountable.

SasaStankovic
SasaStankovic

@TIME @TIMEHealthland why do you sell automatic weapons, build for army, in stores? shouldnt that be illegal?

jimppanchal
jimppanchal

@TIME Every shootout is as painful as #SandyHook for all of us...:(

AlessandroMastrogiacomo
AlessandroMastrogiacomo

It is really hard for me to understand why US government cannot limit the ownership of guns. In most of Europe is extremely difficult to own a gun. This would not completely solve the problem but surely will avoid most of it simply because guns are not easily available. What is even more puzzling is that is a recurrent episode in US. So why the government do not learn from experience and put more restrictions on guns?

cidakapa
cidakapa

@TIME girls do not shoot. boys play all day violent videogames that kill peple like flies

nordog13
nordog13

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Time for a little less emotion and some entry resistant glass that would have stopped this guy for 5 more minutes.

fatheroffour
fatheroffour

The shooter was parented by a mother who felt that multiple assault weapons were appropriate in her home

frankothemountain
frankothemountain

Well we're talking proximity affect here, ok? The tri-state area is the most populated place in the country. It's a hard road. One of my classmates was raped and murdered in the early 70s. I was in 2nd grade, she was in 1st. It affected our whole town deeply. I still feel the effects. You never get over this, you just get a little better at dealing with it. You either carry on, or jump in the hole with them. Sounds calloused, but it's true.

ReisenLoverBoy
ReisenLoverBoy

It is as tragic every time we lose some loved ones. as of now already 1047 is pronounced dead and 800 more missing from a typhoon that swept the southern Philippines and loses are always so painful no matter how many or how few is lost.