By Mandi Zucker, MSW, Program Director, Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss
It was just several hours after I heard the news about the school shootings. I was devastated for the people that died. I kept thinking about the parents who would not see their children alive again. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about the trauma that so many people witnessed. I had so many feelings and nothing to do with them. My husband was still at work. My children were at playdates. I was attached to the television set, horrified at the coverage but unable to shut it off. There was no one around to talk to. But I felt I needed an outlet.
I found out on Facebook that the Presbyterian Church in town was holding a candlelight vigil for anyone who wanted to attend. I wanted to light a candle. So after everyone came home, we took the kids to dinner. We don’t usually go out for dinner on Friday nights, but my husband and I were both emotionally spent and I couldn’t fathom busying myself with table setting and cooking. He was also not seemingly interested in enforcing the normal routines before dinner. So we went to the diner and tried to be very present to our precious children. Then they dropped me off at the church for the hour-long service.
The service was beautiful: quiet, contemplative, and solemn. People were encouraged to pray, reflect, or light a candle. And that’s exactly what I did. I said a prayer for all of the children and staff members killed. I prayed for their families and friends. I reflected on how lucky I am to have had my two beautiful children come home from school caring only about last minute playdates and new video games they got for Hanukkah.
I was sad, but I was also angry. Angry with myself. I questioned why I had the right to feel sad when my children were safe at home and so many others were suffering from an unimaginable loss.
And then I got angrier! I am a social worker. I am a certified grief recovery specialist. I am the Program Director at Imagine, a year-round grief support program. And one of the most important things we try to tell the families that come to our center is that all our feelings are OK. They may not make sense all of the time. They may come from nowhere. But they are all OK, and they are all normal reactions to loss. That is what grief is. And here I was, sitting in this beautiful church, silently yelling at myself for having feelings.
Grief is the natural reaction we have to a loss. That loss may be someone we know intimately or not. The loss may be the loss of a sense of safety. The feelings associated with grief are natural and normal.
I am lucky. I work in a field with a lot of educated, sensitive people. I went to the service with the Executive Director of Imagine, Mary Robinson. As she drove me home, I told her about my experience in the church. She gently reminded me that our feelings and our intellect are not always in sync.
Just because I “knew” that my feelings were valid, I still struggled to accept them. She told me that it’s OK to grieve. But many people don’t have the knowledge or supportive people around them to remind them of this fact. Certainly, children don’t always have the sensitivity to others to allow them a safe place to have their feelings. At least I was able to speak to a sensitive, educated person who gave me permission to express my feelings. Many children, and adults, do not have that same opportunity.
So if you are wondering what you can do, remind yourself and others that their feelings are normal. alk about them with your children, modeling for them how to cope with feelings that they might not understand. Provide opportunities for safe discussion and questions, even if you don’t have all the answers. Feel all your feelings. They are natural. They are normal.