When A was very young she thought I was perfect. She also thought that all adults were good people and that we knew everything there was to know about life.
Then, one day, she learned that we’re not all good. She learned that we don’t always know the answer to things and she learned that sometimes, adults do bad things and there are no answers.
A’s first experience with death was in 1998. A was six and Shari Lewis of “Lamb Chop” fame died from complications caused by pneumonia after she underwent surgery for uterine cancer.
I thought I might never get A to understand death and what it means to love someone who passes away. Her second experience with death was a year later when her best friend, and pet, died. Smooches was an ideal cat. She was both loving and a force to be reckoned with when it came to hunting. A loved her and when Smooches died, A was once again inconsolable.
As you get older you learn that children need to understand things we take for granted. They also need to understand the context when bad things happen.
This past Friday, too many children had to understand something that can’t be explained. Why a boy (and that’s what he was if we’re honest) took his mother’s life and then went on to kill so many others. We’ll talk about gun control as if that is the only answer. It is not. And perhaps we’ll talk about mental illness. But probably not. We’ll talk about systems in place to help people who need it. Even though they aren’t. And we’ll talk about parenting and what it means to love a child who needs more help than most of us will ever understand.
And at the end of all of those conversations we may have some answers. More than likely, however, we’ll have more questions.
Yesterday A called me and we talked about Sandy Hook and mental illness and gun control. No one will ever get me to change my mind about semi-automatic weapons. Ever. And no one will ever get me to understand how people don’t realize that our mental health system fails too many people. Ever.
But yesterday I was a parent to a child asking for an explanation.
Whenever that happens – whenever A needs an answer to something for which I can’t find a reason, I think about what it was like when I first experienced grief. My grandparents had the right answers and when their answers couldn’t address everything, they sat me down and we watched Mr. Rogers. Even now, decades later, when I’m not quite sure what to say to a child who asks ‘why?’ I go to my standby.
“Young children don’t know that sadness isn’t forever. It’s frightening for them to feel that their sadness may overwhelm them and never go away. That “the very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes” is something all parents need to help their children come to understand.”
And there we have it. Sadness isn’t forever, even though memories far too often are eternal.
If you have small children, or, to be honest, children of any age – talk to them. They hear more than we realize; they feel our feelings even when we think we are hiding them and they want to find a way to understand why bad things happen – especially why they happen to other children.