There are times when you realize that nothing you can say is exactly right. In the last couple of days I’ve read a number of pieces about “how to respond to tragedy,” but I find them all lacking. Really, it seems to me, there is nothing right to say to parents who have lost a child to random murder. Just simply nothing that can encompass all you might want to say yet avoid everything that might cause more pain, might seem to trivialize it, or might imply that can know what they’re feeling.
We live in an unusual time in human history when we are ill-acquainted with childhood death. I know two parents who lost young children to disease, but even that is rare in comparison with the past. Before the age of cancer treatment, I would probably have known a few more. Before the age of antibiotics, I would have known many. And before the age of plentiful nutrition, relatively clean and comfortable housing, and freedom from daily violence, every single adult I knew would have had childhood death in their immediate experience.
Our modern culture has no equipment to deal with this phenomenon that is largely unique to modern culture: random acts of violence aimed at groups of children. We digest the more common news of gang killings, innocent deaths during wartime, and parents lashing out at their own kids because there’s a sense of both normality and otherness: gang violence, innocent victims of war, and personal abuse have been part of Western human societies long enough that we collectively understand them even though we don’t accept them. At the same time, though, victims of all three of these types of violence are easily dismissed as “not our kids”—we may feel sympathy, but most of us don’t know anyone it’s happened to personally, so it’s OK.
But these random, “in the wrong place at the wrong time” acts of violence are not padded by cultural understanding. Why that day? Why that school? Why those children? — It could have been any place, any day, any kids who happened to be in the perpetrator’s path.
I am glad that events like this spark collective soul-searching, because I think that our culture is very happy to trip blithely along as if we are doing just fine, when we’re not. We have way too many deaths from violence in this country. We have way too many untreated mentally ill people in this country.
But for me personally, I still end up wondering, what can I say? What would be the right way to respond? And I come up blank. Nothing I think of contains the enormity of this, the sadness, and the answers to the questions we naturally want to ask.