column: How a toy gun and my 4-year-old (unwittingly) helped me process a tragedy
Jenn McKee | AnnArbor.com
Sitting in her chair, wearing white tights and a white dress with blue polka dots, Lily declared, “I’m taking it to preschool.”
“No, sweetie,” I said, a chill in my voice. “You’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” she replied, stubbornly. “For show and tell. Some of the boys bring guns for show and tell.”
“I told her she couldn’t take it,” my husband said, bustling about getting everyone’s breakfast. But my mind was already racing. How could I explain Newtown to a 4-year-old when adults—myself included—were having an impossible time processing it themselves? I’d naively thought I could avoid the whole conversation. Lily wasn’t in elementary school yet, and kids her own age wouldn’t have stumbled upon the story.
But it was like the tragedy refused to stay in the shadows, shoved under a rug.
Delaying, panicking, stalling for time, I looked to Joe, my husband, and pointed at the pistol. “I thought this was on, like, the highest shelf,” I said, referring to our living room’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. He shrugged, and I knew it must have been in a place that had been high enough to hide things when Lily was 2, but not high enough for a chair-hoisting, motivated 4-year-old.
The cap gun had been part of Joe’s Halloween costume years ago, when he played in a brass band; because the group was playing “The Cowboys,” the trombone section had decided to dress the part. Joe and I hadn’t looked at the cap gun since. But now, suddenly, it was forcing me to take my young daughter to a place I didn’t want to go.
I sat in my seat at the table, took a deep breath, and began, “Sweetheart, you can’t take that to preschool because just a few days ago - “
At this point Joe stopped in his tracks and looked at me, eyebrows arched in surprise, and muttered, “You’re going to try and do this? OK,” then continued packing the kids’ snack bags.
“A few days ago, a man took a gun into a school with young kids, and lots of people got really, really hurt.”
“Did they die?” Lily asked, like a reflex.
Swallow. Breathe. “Yes. They did.”
“Did they disappear?”
“No, not exactly. But that’s an interesting question. People generally believe that there’s two parts to a person: the body—which is just the physical part of who you are—and the soul, which consists of the things you think and say and believe. And many, many people believe that when you die, your soul goes to a beautiful place called Heaven. But that’s just one thing people believe. Because no one knows for sure. Some people believe your soul is reborn as another person, or an animal, or a tree, or whatever. So people who believe that a soul goes somewhere after you die would say that the people who died did disappear, in a way.”
I gathered my courage, steering us back to the matter at hand. “But see, many of the people who died were little kids that aren’t much older than you.”
My voice inevitably cracked saying these last words. I’d been in the newsroom on the day of Newtown, of course. I cried at my desk as the TV and Twitter and the conversations around me reported the latest updates on the shootings, and the number of confirmed child deaths kept rising.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how Lily would start school in the fall—and how I would feel as one of those parents who stood waiting for news outside the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“Why are you crying, Mommy?” Lily asked. “Did you know the kids who died?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Do you know their mommies and daddies?”
“No, I don’t. But even though I don’t know them, I know how I would feel if someone hurt you, so I feel sad for them and what they’re going through. And I feel very scared and worried for you and Neve. I want to do everything I can to make you safe, but events like this make that seem really hard.”
I took a breath and gathered myself a little. “So the reason you can’t take the toy gun to school for show and tell today is that a lot of people are feeling very scared and sad right now, because of what this one man did with his gun.”
“But why did the man kill them all?”
This may have been the toughest question she threw at me that morning.
“That’s a good question, too, kiddo. Some people don’t think quite right, and even if they get help from doctors, they still feel compelled to hurt other people. It’s hard to say. But he was sick, in a way, and must have been in a lot of pain.”
At this point, I steered Lily toward some other show-and-tell options, and she quickly seized upon one of her Hanukkah gifts.
Was I right to talk to my 4-year-old about Newtown? I still don’t know. Lily’s not a kid who’d be satisfied with a non-answer like, “Because I said so”—she’d likely only ramp up her interrogation in response—but even so, in retrospect, I suppose I could have tried harder to avoid the topic.
So why didn’t I?
Maybe it’s because, after combing through several news articles about Newtown, and talking with other stricken, mourning adults, I needed to break the event down to its most basic facts and questions—something we often only do when talking to our children—in order to absorb it. To start to get past the initial shock and horror and focus instead on things I might possibly be able to change, or even improve, within the world around me.
And maybe Lily, in her own unwitting way, was helping me find the courage to do just that.