Childhood as a garden: Don't let Boston Marathon bombings spread weeds

The Boston Marathon bombings may foster helplessness, despair, but they don't have to. Be proactive in helping others, says Dr. David J. Schonfeld. And allowing your child to express their feelings – in the comment section below, in private, or as Lisa Suhay suggests through gardening – can be salutary.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
People sign a banner that says 'Boston, you're our home' during an impromptu vigil begins on Boston Common for victims of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, on April 16 in Boston.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Four-year-old Naseem Jihad waves an American flag during an impromptu vigil on Boston Common for victims of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, on April 16 in Boston.

The intention of terrorist attacks is typically to make a political statement and generate fear. And like weeds in the garden of childhood, such attacks may sow feelings of helplessness and despair in our kid's thoughts.

As parents we need to get our kids up, up, and away from scary images and dark thoughts by empowering them to be life’s gardeners, “helpers” who plant and grow back the good thoughts.

“So many people rushed in to help during and after the Boston Marathon bombings. Those people who can help will have a better recovery than someone who is just forensically watching the same images of trauma over and over on the news or Internet,” said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, chief pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Philadelphia, a member of the Sandy Hook Commission on School Crises, during a telephone interview the day after the marathon.

A quote by Fred Roger’s (the former host of Mister Roger's Neighborhood) has become a rallying point following the Boston attack: “When I was a little boy and something bad happened in the news, my mother would tell me to ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping,' she'd say. And I've found that that's true.”

We have seen the stories and images of those who, after the bombs exploded, rushed in where most would fear to tread and brought aid and comfort to victims.

Schonfeld explained that, without realizing it, those who help and bring comfort by expressing condolences, offering a hand to an injured stranger, or bunking a displaced runner are actually doing the best thing anyone can do to help themselves cope with the tragedy.

“If you can’t help someone in Boston, helping someone in your community with your child works too,” Schonfeld said from Washington, where he was with military officials at the Pentagon discussing ways to help support children grieving after the loss of a military parent. “Maybe it’s just writing a letter to someone in Boston to tell them you are thinking of them. Drawing a picture, writing a poem or condolence card.”

“I work with these families on these horrible events and even I don’t know all the number of shots fired at a crime scene,” Schonfeld said. “Nobody needs to know that stuff. We just don’t need those images in our heads.”

“What you really need is to know you have the power to do something, even if it’s something as small as helping pick up trash in a local cleanup or writing about how you feel and sending a letter to someone in Boston.”

Since most of us don’t know the names and addresses of those affected, using the comments section beneath this blog may be a starting place for kids and parents to express condolences, write poems, and give voice to their concerns and hopes. Although, I will warn against profanity, hate and ugly because those are not really in the “healing thought” realm and would be counter-productive to the exercise.

Having a child write something and keeping it private will also work, as will drawing pictures to express sorrow or concern. If your child needs a stronger feeling of empowerment, you could offer to post their drawing, poem, or prose on social media (our Twitter handle is @modparenthood).

The people we will remember for their compassion are also the ones who can recover more fully from the trauma because their own selfless actions helped defend them from shock, horror, and that feeling of helplessness.

According to The Boston Globe, “Marathon volunteer John Gannon drove slowly down Charles Street in his Honda Accord, calling out the window to ask if stranded runners needed a ride or a phone to borrow. He scoured the streets, trying to help out-of-town runners separated from their family and friends, their phones and their wallets. He had taken two carloads to Harvard Square and a third to the Newton Marriott.”

Gannon, a lawyer, told The Globe, “I just couldn’t go home. I felt like I had to do something. We just felt like our mission wasn’t done.”

Our mission is far from done where this incident is concerned. Our mission as parents is not to watch and analyze the news, but to get busy with our kids and show them that they have power. It’s spring, go out and plant a "victory over fear" garden.

Each spring in Norfolk, Va., all the gardens around the city bloom with yellow flowers planted to mark the yellow fever epidemic that once nearly wiped the city off the map.

The state flower of Massachusetts is the delicate white Mayflower (Epigaea regens), on the endangered list since 1925. Well, I think that’s what we all need to plant in our gardens this weekend. Like its state flower, Boston itself is endangered and we need to nurture it, regrow its spirit and strength.

Let’s send a message to those who would bring us to our knees that once there all we will do is dig down deep, plant roots, and grow stronger.

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