When 20 children and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, my husband came home early from work.
We were new parents; our oldest son, Nate, was just 5 months old. And while we would have been stunned and saddened by the shooting even if we had not had children, the deaths shocked and scared us in a newly personal way now that we had our own baby to protect. It was the first time our minds had engaged in the grim mental exercise that parents perform from time to time, even if they don’t talk about it: We imagined what it would be like to lose our own son. And so Aaron came home early to fend off that feeling, to hold me and Nate tight and inoculate himself from that loss.
Since then, I have held the thought of losing my children in the back of my mind, batting it back most of the time, even though sometimes, late at night, it creeps to the front of my consciousness. When tragedies happen that call forward the possibility of loss, like when a little boy the same age as my son washed up on a beach while trying to flee the war in Syria, or when a young child died in a fire a few miles from where I live, I play mental tricks to evade the pain before it can sink in too deeply. We don’t live in a war zone, I tell myself. Our apartment building is safe. When 17 people were killed in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, I thought, he’s not in high school. We don’t live in Florida.
These are futile defenses, of course. There are no conditions that prevent tragedy from coming to your family. I also suspect that there’s something unhealthy about this way of thinking. By pushing away pain, I worry that I also push away true empathy. I know that some people are able to let themselves feel the sadness of others without becoming overwhelmed by it, but I’m not there yet.
By pushing away pain, I worry that I also push away true empathy.
When Nate entered kindergarten last fall, I thought briefly: He’s in elementary school now, just like the Sandy Hook victims. Just as quickly, I brushed that thought away: He’s not in first grade. They were in first grade. When his school did an active shooter drill this year, telling the students they were preparing for what would happen if a “stranger” entered the school, Nate didn’t seem bothered by it, so I let that soothe me. I focused on his state of mind, not the fact that schools now engage in these drills as a matter of routine.
As irrational as it is, I know that next year, when he’s in first grade, the threats posed by what has become a national culture of gun violence and mass shootings will drum more strongly in my head. Nate will be in no greater danger as a first-grader than he was as a preschooler or will be as a fifth-grader. But what I will have to face, for the first time, is knowing a first-grader intimately. The loss of all those children at Sandy Hook will be more monstrous when I can see in front of my eyes how very young and childlike a 6-year-old is, how much that child still needs me, how terrified he would be in the face of danger.
Of the many kinds of intense love we experience in our lives — love for our parents, for our siblings and close friends, love for our boyfriends and girlfriends and wives and husbands — the love we have for our children stands alone, in that it is characterized by a fierce urge to keep them safe and a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for them. Still so new to us, this feeling overwhelmed my husband and me at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting. Now, five years on, I’ve grown accustomed to it and the fear that comes with it.
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I’ve been captivated, along with so many others, by the teenagers who have become activists. Watching these students take charge and lead has been pretty much the only story in the national news that makes me happy. My hope is that with support from their families, teachers, communities and experienced activists, they continue to lead in the fight to reduce gun violence. Previous generations have failed miserably; I believe they have every chance of succeeding.
The flip side to not being able to ensure your children’s protection is that, as they move outside of your orbit, they grow into themselves. Even as a 5-year-old, Nate has started to do that, developing his own interests and making his own friends. When I think about the kind of person he might become in a dangerous world, the Parkland student activists are as good a model as any. Ten years from now, I hope his life remains more protected than theirs have been. But I also hope he’s as smart, passionate and nervy as they are.