December 16, 2012


The question is floating around, the first thing we ask when one parent encounters another: “What are you telling your children?”

I gave Zachary some simple information – there was a shooting at a school in Connecticut – in case a friend at school brought it up. “My friends don’t talk about those things,” he told me. I asked him not to mention it to his siblings because of Benjamin’s fears. The other two don’t need to know, since I doubt it’ll trickle down to first grade.

First grade. The children were in first grade. Their grandparents had already bought their Christmas gifts. Maybe they’d ordered a few last-minute ones that will arrive this week, too late to go under any tree. Their parents were working with them on their reading, teaching them to tie their shoes. Their siblings don’t know what to do about the half-finished Lego kits spread across the living room floor.

Benjamin likes to read the newspaper on Saturday mornings. Today, I took the news section out of his hands and gave him the magazine. He’s in first grade. He’s too young.

A friend of mine buried her father today. He was a good man, a father of nine children, a grandfather, a man whose religion instructed him to be “the first to love.” His was a protracted illness, one that robbed him of his memory and his speech. His life was longish, although too short for those who loved him, and made meaningful by his service to others and to God.

I want to quote here from the eulogy, delivered today as a good man was laid to rest in Philadelphia and 26 families in Newtown, CT, were ravaged by a grief that is beyond reason:

“One day, M [one of his daughters] asked him to give us some words of wisdom that we could pack away, for when we needed him and he was no longer with us.  With great effort, since he had already lost much of his fluency, he gave this wisdom: The meaning of life, the essence of our human experience, is to know deep suffering and to choose to face it with love.   She asked him, ‘Daddy, what about people with wonderful lives? They won’t experience the meaning of life?’  Smiling at her naiveté he told us, ‘Everyone suffers deeply, at some point in life.’”

It’s a wonderful life. It is deep emerald green and pungent moss and gritty sand between our toes. It’s a strong, rich life. With it comes senseless tragedy and unbelievable sorrow that – if we are lucky – we can face with love. I understand this a little more every day. The misery I grew up with is not so unique, because everyone suffers deeply at some point in life.

First graders cannot understand this. First graders should not be asked to understand this. First graders should live in a world of ponies, rainbows, puppy dogs, Legos, Komodo dragons, and recess rivalry between the boys and the girls.

Yet, tonight, there is a group of first graders going to bed in Connecticut with a hole in their group. When they go back to school, some of their teachers and their principal will be gone. They will grow up in this town with 20 of their number missing. There will be ghosts that follow them through second, third, ninth grades. They will graduate high school 20 short of their numbers.

There is also a group of first graders not going to bed at all.

Everyone suffers deeply at some point in life.

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  • Reply Karen December 16, 2012 at 2:00 am

    Thank you, friend. Thank you.
    Please have a thought for me and Matt as we attempt to tell the third grader with anxiety as little as possible – but enough so he is not surprised by peer level information.
    I doubt his capacity for this. But I know for certain his peers will know and talk. My heart is broken in a million place for the suffering of families.

  • Reply dusty earth mother December 16, 2012 at 2:45 am

    Beautifully said. Thank you.

  • Reply Catherine December 16, 2012 at 4:41 am

    ” The meaning of life, the essence of our human experience, is to know deep suffering and to choose to face it with love. ” I agree. Thank you.

  • Reply melanie December 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    My son (7) asked a few questions last night, and it broke my heart.

  • Reply Lilian Nattel December 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    These are difficult conversations–they get at the difficult heart of life. I remember talking to myself about them when I was a kid because I had no one else to talk to. Thank God your kids have you.

  • Reply sara December 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I don’t know what to write but wanted you to know that I read this.

    First grade mom, too. Working in an elementary school. Colleague (kindergarten/first grade teacher) lives in Newtown so this is literally close to home in the physical sense.

  • Reply Heide December 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Lovely post.

  • Reply JoAnn Barton December 17, 2012 at 1:01 am

    Thank you for your healtfelt observations and for your wisdom. I have a great-granddaughter in this age group, and my very best friend has a grandson in kindergarten. It’s just so wrong that we have to inform our little ones about such horrible and tragic events, yet I think we must. It is us to whom they look for guidance – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and they trust us to give them meaningful answers to life questions. I’m pretty devastated that we have to address this specific issue with them, one involving other innocent children in their age group, but I think we must do it, and accomplish it with as much grace, dignity, and encouragement as we can during such a time. Our little ones will come to know this tragedy over the next several days. As much as we want to protect them from such information, they will hear it, fear it, and worry over it. It’s up to us to enfold them in our arms and offer them all the peace, serenity, and security we can during this awful time.

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