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Amid the aftershocks of the senseless shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., our ever-more-complex society goes on to publicly discuss what happened and how to avoid such tragedy in the future.
But there are also private considerations and quieter questions of how to respond — on a personal level — to suffering parents.
What can you say to parents who have lost a child? What can you do?
No one is an expert when it comes to this most horrific, most out-of-the-natural-order-of-things disaster. The grief a bereaved parent feels resides deep within and is individually expressed. Different people respond in different ways.
Tragically, my wife, Jan, and I have experience. Our two beautiful, brilliant and ebullient sons, Stone, 24, and Holt, 20, were killed when an out-of-control tractor-trailer crashed into their car — while the boys were stopped in traffic — on a Virginia interstate in the summer of 2009. In one cruelest instant, we lost all of our children.
And so we speak only from our own experience.
As bereaved parents ourselves, we feel deep empathy and compassion for any parent who loses a child of any age — and especially now for the parents of Newtown.
We have an intense knowledge of the personal horror, the chaos, the confusion, the total shock and disbelief the mothers and fathers are feeling. We share their all-consuming pain and that deepest of human longings for it simply to ... not ... be ... true.
We cry for the lost children of Newtown, and we cry for their parents.
But what can you say to someone who has lost a child? "I am so sorry," is a start. And, we have discovered, it is also possibly all there is to say. There is just not much else to speak of. At least, that's the way we feel.
And what can you do? There are many things that people have done since Holt and Stone were killed that have been helpful and meaningful. The gestures are simple — and yet profound because of the courage and restraint and, yes, love, it takes to do them.
On hearing the reality-wracking news, dear friends of the boys and of ours came to us to cry with us.
A large group set up a food calendar, a dinner-delivery system that fed Jan and me for months and months — on many days that we did not want to get out of bed, much less shop and cook and take care of ourselves. Friends took turns, preparing one meal a day, bringing it by around sunset, speaking to us a little if we felt like it or leaving it at the front door if we didn't. We are forever grateful to those who participated.
Other friends have stepped in to do other simple things. One swept our driveway. Others raked leaves and cleaned up the yard. Many have come to the house, one at a time, to spend a couple of hours helping Jan address hundreds of thank-you notes. Others dropped off fresh flowers once a week, offered to go shopping for us, left thoughtful gifts at our doorstep, such as a homemade moss garden and heart-shaped rocks. People donated to various charities in honor of our sons. A neighboring family appeared one morning to shovel heavy snow from our driveway.
Another bereaved parent told us about The Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents and family members who have lost children.
Some friends simply gave us long, deeply felt hugs and held us as we sobbed inconsolably.
And above all, the most important thing people have done — and still do for Jan and me — is to remember Holt and Stone. In little ways, such as posting Facebook messages, texting us on their birthdays or holidays, sharing sweet memories with us. And in big ways, such as establishing memorials at their high schools in Maryland and their colleges in Delaware, Florida and Texas.
Many people helped us establish a foundation to honor the beautiful lives that our sons lived — and many continue to support it.
Simple yet profound gestures.
During the past 3 1/2 years, people have said to us: "I just can't imagine ..." We never, ever imagined this either. But now that this horror has happened to Stone and Holt, and to Jan and me, we ask our friends to try to imagine. The tender ones who have imagination and compassion sit with us quietly and listen — and try to help us feel less alone.
As retired Presbyterian minister and author Eugene Peterson told NPR following the Newtown shootings: "Silence is sometimes the best thing to do, holding a hand, hugging somebody. There are no adages that explain or would make any difference to the suffering. Sometimes people say, 'I don't know what to say to these people.' You know, I say don't say anything. Just hold their hand. Hold them, hug them and just stay around for an hour or so in silence and just be there. That's what we need at times like this ..."
Actually, it's what Jan and I, as bereaved parents, will need for the rest of our lives. The world may recover from the deaths of our children. We will never fully recover from such life wounds. How could we?
We imagine that, like us, the parents of Newtown will need love and support and room to grieve — in their own ways and at their own pace. For a long, long, very long time.