What I would ask Nancy Lanza

Memorial for Sandy Hook victims

Even as the New Year dawns and I’m teased with new beginnings and bright possibilities, I’m also still mourning how the Old Year concluded with the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I find that I keep vacillating between tears and numbness; I can only hold so much sorrow and despair before I have to shut down for a while and not feel. Then slowly, the sadness and grief return.

What has touched me most in this ordeal is reading about Adam’s mom, Nancy, and how it appears she was so isolated while dealing with her son’s increasingly extreme social withdrawal. Aside from a few conversations with casual friends, it appears that she faced her uncertainties, worries, and hard choices alone.  Her acquaintances are quick to describe her as happy and cheerful, but I imagine a different Nancy Lanza living behind the closed doors of her big beautiful home in Newtown.  I imagine a mom who desperately wanted her son to “fit in” and who was sick with worry about how to reach him as he slipped away, receding further and further into his own world.

This breaks my heart because it hits close to home for me. When my son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and we were dealing with some pretty severe behaviors day in and day out and I, too, felt he was slipping away, there were times when I thought I would lose my mind.  If I hadn’t had a couple good friends around me to hear my painful stories, to witness my struggles and to just be there to love me through it, I don’t know how it would have turned out. (Thank you Faye and Donna!) What I learned from that experience is it’s easy to become isolated when you have a “problem” child.  It’s hard to find sitters and play dates and friends who will go the distance with you.

I see this isolation often as I work with parents who have children with challenging behaviors, whether it’s violent outbursts or extreme social withdrawal.  It’s easy to wag a finger at the parent and find fault with their parenting.  It’s easy to give well-meaning advice of just do this, and that should solve the problem.  But unless you’ve ever lived with a child who doesn’t respond the same way as a “normal” child to “traditional” parenting techniques, then I’m here to tell you, “You don’t have a clue!”  What these parents need is not finger-wagging and advice, but compassion and acceptance, so that they feel like part of the human family again.

We can second-guess Nancy and think, “if only she had done this, that, or the other,” and we can blame her for taking Adam to shooting ranges and teaching him to fire a gun—just like we can judge the actions or inactions of other parents who have “weird” or “unruly” or “bully” kids.   But I don’t think fault-finding helps anyone.  I think it fuels the shame and fear of judgment that parents of children who are “different” often feel.  And shame and fear is what keeps these parents and families isolated.  What I would like to see is for us to love and support the Nancy Lanzas in our communities–the parents who are struggling with family life, often very much alone.

If only I could get in a time machine and reach out to Nancy before this awful tragedy, I would ask her, “You seem worried.  What’s going on?  How can I help?  What do you need?”  I would listen with my whole heart and I would hold a safe non-judgmental space for her to share her struggles, and to begin to heal.  Because I know when parents heal their own pain, they can help their children to heal too.  When parents receive compassion and acceptance themselves, they can extend the same to their children…and there’s a lot of children out there starving for compassion and acceptance.

As a parenting educator/coach, I’ve seen the power of a group of parents who come together to support each other.  A foundation of my classes is developing empathic listening, so parents are paired up and spend time outside of class just listening to each other.  Not giving advice, not trying to fix or console, but just listening. The parents are always astounded at how much this simple practice supports them.  As one mom recently said, “My friends and I talk all the time about parenting stuff, but this is a different quality of listening.  The word that comes to mind is transformative.”

Who knows what kind of ripple effect a supportive listening ear would have made for Nancy and possibly many other lives?  Would it have been enough to change the trajectory of what was to come?  It’s too late to know the answer in regards to Nancy Lanza, but there are many struggling, exhausted parents out there right now who need our support—perhaps it’s your neighbor, perhaps it’s your sister-in-law, perhaps it’s you.

My vision is a world where we create emotionally-safe, judgment-free communities where parents can come together,  share their struggles, be accepted no matter what is happening or how they are handling it, and be supported and nurtured by each other.  If this sounds like the kind of community you would like to be a part of, I invite you to join me in this quest and reach out to a parent who is struggling in your community today.
Rest in peace…Nancy, Allison, Ana Grace, Anne Marie, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Chase, Daniel, Dawn, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Lauren, Madeleine, Mary, Noah, Olivia Rose, Rachel, Victoria, and Adam.

When the unthinkable happens

Early Saturday morning, my older teenage son climbed in bed with me and my husband.  He spread his long body between us and announced, “I’ve made breakfast for you.”   

 “Yeah, right,” I said.  He hasn’t done that since he was 7 or 8 and used to bring me breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day–strawberries, oreo cookies, and milk.   

 “I’m not kidding,” he said. “I made eggs and french toast sticks.”

 “What’s up?,” I asked, mystified.

 “Something tragic happened last night and I’ve been thinking,” he said. He had my full attention now.  He had been hanging out with some friends the night before at one of their homes.  Did they do something stupid? Did someone get hurt?

“What happened?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.

His lower lip started quivering as he said, “Zander’s mom died last night.”  One of his basketball buddies.  “I knew she had cancer but I didn’t know it was that bad.  I got a tweet from Zander last night that said, ‘Thanks for everyone’s support.  Rest in Peace Mom.’  It’s so tragic and I just got to thinking about if that happened to one of you.  I’d be so sad.”  I started crying and he put his arm around me. 

 I didn’t  know Zander’s mom.  I only saw his dad at the basketball games.  But I felt the grief of what she must have gone through knowing she was leaving her two sons behind.  And I was so sad thinking about Zander and his brother growing up without their mom.  I don’t know which would be worse…to lose a child or to leave a child behind. 

My heart was breaking and it was also so touched that my son was displaying vulnerability and deep caring, which I don’t see often–especially now that he’s a teenager.  It’s sweet to know there’s still a tender place in his heart.  Today, he told his Dad how much he appreciated him fixing up a car for him to drive.  He has given me more hugs this weekend than I’ve had in the last 6 months.  He’s even been nice to his little brother. 

Death can change you in that way. Shake you awake and open your eyes to the fleeting brilliance and vibrancy of life.  Death is a reminder to the living:  Savor now.  Love now.  Appreciate now.  Express it now.

It is heartwarming to see how his circle of friends is supporting each other…in their teenage boy way.  Tweeting messages to Zander to let him know they are thinking of him.  Planning to go over next weekend to be with him.  It’s the first death to touch their group and they are handling it with such care and concern.  It’s a flashback to an earlier time when they were little boys and innocent and more open to showing their soft side. 

So just know, if your kids are entering the murky waters of adolescence and starting to “act” like they don’t care or don’t want you around or are embarrassed of you in front of their friends–they do still have a tender heart beneath that brittle shell.  And I have faith they will come back to it once that protective layer is no longer needed.  

 I send a prayer to Zander and his family to keep their hearts open and to live their lives fully as their mom would want.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
— Mary Oliver, poet