No, nothing feels normal yet.
My fifth-grade son has returned to school today after a week that was supposed to be fun. His April vacation camp offered a holiday from homework, a chance to make candles and cookies and to hang with his buddies. Instead, he never got to finish the last day.
First, came the bombings at the Boston Marathon. He was still in camp on Tuesday, eager to move on – but then came the hunt for who did it. By Friday morning (April 19), one of the bombing suspects had died after a brutal shootout. Five cities in the metropolitan area were in a security lockdown, including Cambridge where we live. A manhunt for the second suspect dragged on for hours in Watertown, about a mile from our house.
At one point on Friday, my son said he wished this had never happened during his lifetime. How I wish that were true. Today, as I watched him silently reading the comics, nibbling at a piece of toast for breakfast, I know this event is far from over.
Yet, I’ve also realized that denying the rollercoaster of feelings unleashed isn’t just absurd; it’s not the way to help my child.
I don’t know for sure how he’ll experience being back in school, but I suspect it will be comforting on many levels. He’ll be with his friends and familiar adult faces; the school building will be full of noise, blessed chatter, a press of people. It will be a relief after the empty streets and ominous silence outside on Friday.
The most counterintuitive comfort, though, will come from talking about where he was and what he felt and what his silly mom did and what we saw on TV. Rather than forgetting what happened, I believe he needs to keep talking and feeling.
I’m grateful that the assistant head of my son’s school agrees. Here’s a brief excerpt from the detailed e-mail message she sent us on Saturday: “We are advising all parents and guardians to have conversations with your children prior to their returning to school Monday. While we often make efforts to shield our younger students from tragic news of this nature, the proximity, breadth and depth of the impact on our communities makes the response to this week necessarily more open.”
By the same token, the generic advice offered last week about how to handle children in a crisis – stay calm, reassure them, let them talk if they want to talk – frustrated me. Much of it was sensible and rational, especially for younger kids. Advice by psychiatrists and social workers was widely distributed by local news organizations and schools (including my son’s). But much of it assumed that parents could put a lid on their own emotional responses – or that doing so in front of children is a good idea.
I don’t think so, not with a tween. Parents aren’t therapists. My boy needed his fear and outrage and confusion validated, but not by dispassionate observers promising safety they weren’t sure of. My job was to stay with him, to love him – to throw my body in front him as a shield if need be – but not to hide everything I was feeling.
Certainly my husband and I did our best to reassure our son. We tried to follow his cues, turning off the TV when he wanted it off, then turning it back on when he asked for that. Regardless, we’ve had some bad moments, especially after visiting the marathon memorial in downtown Boston this weekend. Still, I don’t think false promises or explanations help a child like my son, who is ever attuned to when we’re faking it.
Many families have trod this difficult path before, trying to protect their children from Newtown, 9/11, Columbine – the sad list goes on. It helps to know that families have recovered from other national traumas, even if the disturbing memories linger.
It helps me, anyway, and I assume it helps other adults charged with the care and well being of children. My son’s teachers, for instance, may lead him and his peers in this direction when they discuss all that’s happened.
Yet, for a child, such intellectual knowledge doesn’t mesh with the combination of terror and guilty excitement kicked off by a manhunt in your town. At 11 years old, my son resents our meddling concern even as he still longs for protection.
Going back to school today will restore many soothing routines. But I also hope he learns that it’s possible to live our lives freely even if we sometimes feel afraid. I hope my son discovers that the chaos inside can spark a lifetime of questions that matter.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Martha Nichols blogs at Athena's Head.