In the Wake of Tragedy

(I wrote this for my newspaper column the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I hope 2013 is the year we as a country begin to take serious steps to ensure such tragedies never happen again.)

This was going to be a very different column. Then 20 children died in Connecticut.

A gunman opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, leaving 20 children and 7 adults (including the shooter) dead.

As the mother of an elementary school student, school shootings were already one of my nightmares. Having grown up and gone to school in Connecticut myself, though—and now having a son in elementary school just one state over, the nightmare seems more real than ever. I cannot imagine what it is like for the parents, families, and friends of the victims. My heart goes out to them.

It is hard to find words in the wake of such a tragedy. Words will not suffice to convey the horror, or to comfort the surviving families and friends. But we can use words to help us take action, and to find in that action some sense that the deaths have at least helped move our society towards a place where such tragedies never happen again.

There have been 31 school shootings since the one in Columbine, Colorado in 1999, according to ABC News. One was too many. Thirty-one is unconscionable.

Many are seeing the shooting as one more reason to call for more stringent gun control laws. I would agree. They are long overdue.

But gun control is only part of the solution. I believe mental health care and education are the other two main components of what has to be a multi-pronged approach to the problem.

Anyone who commits such a senseless act as did the gunman has clear mental health issues. Mental health remains a little-understood and still-stigmatized area of an already shaky health care system. We need to do more to help people identify when they or others need mental health assistance, to destigmatize getting such assistance, and to provide the financial resources so those who need it get appropriate care.

We must also educate our children—future adults—to respect each other and to handle anger, frustration, and loss in ways that don’t involve lashing out at others. We have made great strides in recent years in addressing bullying and violence, but we need to do even more to show children how to respect themselves and others and to solve problems in constructive, not destructive, ways. Yes, we need to teach our children to read, write, and do arithmetic, but we also need to make sure they have social and emotional skills for life.

These are not “luxury” subjects. They are not dealt with solely in a once-a-year anti-bullying or anti-violence workshop or posters on the wall. They are critical learnings that should be woven into the fabric of school life, whether it be in working together over a science project, learning about different perspectives through a book during a language class, or learning to share at recess. Schools cannot alone obviate mental health issues, but they can create supportive environments to encourage emotional well-being.

Education begins at home, however, and we as parents must set good examples of respect and non-violent problem solving. We must monitor the media our children consume, and talk with them when they encounter images of violence that could cause them concern or misunderstanding. We must also not be afraid to seek help when our own or our children’s emotional needs require it.

Out of tragedy often come heroes. I think today of Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime, and who has dedicated her life to “Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion, and Acceptance” through a foundation in his honor. I wonder sometimes if I could be that brave and selfless in the face of personal tragedy. I hope I never have to find out. We cannot, however, leave it to those who were directly affected by a tragedy to take action on our behalf.

It is up to all of us, as parents and people, to make sure tragedies like this never happen again. We cannot each do everything, though. We must each pick an aspect or aspects of the problem that we feel most strongly about, or where we feel we can have the most impact—gun control, mental health, education—and do what we can, as often as we can, in our homes, schools, communities, and nation.

As a society, we give much lip service to doing things “in the best interests of the children.” But if we as a society do not do what it takes to protect children’s lives, even in areas like gun control and mental health that aren’t traditionally associated with “children’s issues,” then we have failed, and our society is the poorer for it.

In fact, if we don’t protect our children, we have no future as a society.

Hug your kids. Then go work for their future.