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)