Why I Didn't Tell My Daughter About Newtown

Why I Didn't Tell My Daughter About Newtown

Today I went to a holiday party for a literary organization. We played a game in which you tried to guess the novel from a group of first lines. A lot of them were novels that addressed death in some capacity. We talked about how when you read novels too young sometimes the whole point sails over your head along with all the kissing parts and anything scary. I remembered reading The Scarlet Letter way too young and all I got out of it was DEVIL BABY.

When I was in high school, one of my cousin's friends shot himself in his car with his girlfriend sitting right next to him. He died. It didn't register for me how horrible that must have been for not only for his family but also for his girlfriend -- who was right there in the same front seat -- until years later. I don't know if I was insensitive or just young. I've only ever been me.

My mom has a habit of telling me who that we know has recently gotten cancer or some other terminal illness. Now that I'm almost forty, I understand why she's telling me. When I was twenty, I thought she was just trying to depress the shit out of me. When you know almost everyone in your tiny town, you realize you know a hell of a lot of sick people. My mom had cancer when I was a tween. People alternated between asking me questions I didn't want to answer and very obviously not talking about it at all. I read their concern as prying and their space as uncaring, because I was very angry to be the kid with the sick mother. I spent those years also trying very hard not to think through all the horrible things that could go wrong with her chemotherapy and radiation. As an adult, I'm ashamed of how I deflected these things. I know quite well that many people tried to talk to me about many things over the years, and I interpreted that as their need to talk to me about things, because if I wanted to talk to them about it, wouldn't I start a conversation?

I think as parents we're all shaped by our own childhoods. Other than my mother's cancer, my childhood was great, and I see that now, though for many years it was framed through by my own undiagnosed anxiety disorder. That I was not happy as much as I would've liked to be was not anyone's fault, but it was how I felt. My daughter seems happy most of the time. So far -- so far! -- she doesn't display the anxiety I felt as a child. She comes to me, from time to time, and asks about things, but right now she still lives in a world of Santa Claus and Charlotte's Web. She's never seen a PG-13 movie, she's never even seen the shooting in Star Wars and she's never focused on the nightly news. It wasn't breaking any sort of norm that she didn't see the news on Friday or any day this weekend. We didn't start the conversation.

If she comes home tomorrow and asks about Newtown, I've decided what I'm going to say. Something terrible happened last week. I don't know why it happened. Don't let it make you afraid, because there's always something to be afraid of if you go looking for it. Let's not look.

Not "it can't happen to you." I can't guarantee that. Not "God wouldn't let that happen," because I personally don't think God let Newtown happen, not for a reason. It happened. It was horrible. If she asks, what I will say is this: "Life is short. Let's not seek out things to worry about." And I'll show her my tattoo again of the word "now" that I got two years ago to help me break my seemingly never-ending focus on all the things that can go wrong. The truth is bad things can happen, they do happen, and heartbreakingly, sometimes they happen to awesome people. Sometimes the marathon runner has a heart attack. Sometimes innocent kids get shot. And because something bad actually could happen, don't focus too hard on tomorrow. Focus on right now, this minute. In this minute, we love each other, and that matters. Focus on that.

Until she asks, I'm going to keep my fears to myself and use the energy I would've used talking to my daughter about unimaginable horror to write this post for all of the parents and trusted adults who chose not to talk to their kids about Newtown and are looking for a way to explain that to themselves. I'm going to use some of that energy to pray for the victims' families and even for the shooter's family, because they lost people and I'm so sorry they lost people. I'm going to pray for myself and my family the prayer I've learned to use instead of the "please let this happen, please don't let that happen" plea that I've prayed my whole life. Ever since I got the tattoo, I've been praying this: "Please help me be a better person. Please give me strength to deal with whatever happens."

I don't have words for the level of emotion I feel for those parents and friends and families. I'm sure there's a scientific term for this physical pain I feel for people I've never met. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. Right now, this minute, I'm thinking of you and wishing for relief from your pain.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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