By Shari Botwin, LCSW
Less than twenty four hours ago the world learned about another senseless killing in a place of worship, The Tree Of Life Synagogue. Seconds after the news broke millions of people took to social media expressing their shock, fear and grief. I found myself thinking, “How do we explain this latest tragedy to our kids? How do we explain an event filled with so much hatred? How do we create safety when our own feelings about vulnerability are activated?” I have been counseling survivors of trauma in my private practice for over 20 years. I have met men and women who lost family members or partners to suicide, gun violence, terrorism and plane crashes. All of these patients were kids or teenagers when the event occurred. One of the worst parts of the trauma is not having a place or people to work through their feelings of grief and fear. Many of my patients come to therapy after these events because they are left with years of undigested feelings, which resulted in developing severe depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
First thing this morning I went through my social media newsfeed and was struck by my friend’s post, Rabbi Yitzi Weiner, “My sweet young daughter asked me before going to bed tonight, ‘Abba are Nazis going to kill us too?” My heart sank and I immediately texted Yitzi commenting on the bravery of his sweet little girl. While the question is gut wrenching, it is also so healthy for kids to be able to voice any fears or concerns that run through their minds.
How can we respond to our kids when they ask us such compelling questions? As I read this post I reflected back on other recent gun violence tragedies; such as the Stoneman High School Shooting, The Las Vegas Massacre and the massacre in a rural Texas Church. Today I paid close attention to my reaction to the synagogue shooting and what kinds of feelings got stirred up in me. I tried to figure out how to protect my little guy from seeing images of the killing on television and the internet. I also struggled to make sense of what to do with my own emotions, related to my religious background growing up Jewish.
There were times today when I wanted to burst into tears. There were times today when I wanted to scream and other moments when I wanted to grab a hold of my seven year old and hide under my bed. I decided to spend a quiet day at home and find things that made me feel comfort. I stayed close to my little guy, spent some time on my yoga mat, pet my kittens and I focused on communities coming together to grieve this latest tragedy in Pittsburgh. I drove by a local synagogue and noticed hundreds of cars parked outside as they were having a community vigil.
I thought about, “What will I say to Andrew if he asked me what happened at that synagogue?” Then I started thinking about all the times through my childhood when I felt fearful to be in a synagogue or tell people, “I am Jewish.” There were several times during school when I was shown movies about the Holocaust and I remembered watching clips of people being killed and tortured during the war. I had nightmares and would be terrified to be in my own synagogue. From what I remember there was very little dialogue about what we had just watched in school so the images of terror stayed with me.
As the weeks go by the tragedy will feel more real for many of us as it will be the center of attention in most media outlets. Just hours before I wrote this article the names of the eleven people killed were posted online. The best thing we can do for ourselves and our kids is first address our own reaction. It is okay to feel scared, angry and sad. It is not necessary to hide our emotions from our kids. It is a day of grieving for so many. At one point I told Andrew, “Mommy is having a sad day today.” I did not go into detail and did not share why because he did not ask. I do not know how Yitzi responded to his daughter when she expressed her fear about being hurt. I imagine he wrapped his arms around her and reassured her that even in times of terror, most likely she and everyone around her are safe. It is crucial that we be open to any questions our kids have when news of such tragedy becomes public.
Some tips to talking with our kids:
1. Limit television news and internet usage
2. With kids under 12 turn off the television or computer when the story of the shooting is being featured.
3. Wait for your kids to ask questions before addressing the event. If your kids do not ask, you do not need to share.
4. If later in the week your kids come home talking about the shooting sit down with them and ask them what they heard about it. Rather than focus on the details of the killings, emphasize the hope that comes from the support of love and prayers being sent to Pittsburgh.
5. If your kids want to do something to help tell them to write letters to the families or kids of the victims that got hurt or lost their lives.
6. If you are unable to discuss the tragedy due to your own trauma history that is okay! Find someone else that can talk to your kids; a friend, an aunt or even a counselor at your kid’s school.
7. Communication and reassuring safety is most important. The likelihood that someone will experience this kind of trauma is less than one percent. Tell your kids the steps people are taking as a result of the shooting. Remind them that their safety is most important and if at any point they feel unsafe they can call you or have someone else call you.