My grandfather used to say that death could bring out the best and the worst in people. Ever since December 14th, 2012, we have grappled with the reality that the unthinkable happened. Conversations amongst myself and loved ones vacillate from compassion for the families of those brutally murdered to anger towards a system that failed to treat the assailant’s mental illness before he chose to murder 27 people including his mother, 20 elementary school children, and 6 teachers at the school he had attended as a young boy.
Lately, I have read or listened to a wide-array of opinions, from the probable to the absurd, for what caused the young man to snap. The truth is, none of us will never know the root cause because the only person able to answer that question cowardly destroyed all evidence that may have helped uncover those answers. Suicide is the ultimate, most selfish act a person can take. The young man took no accountability for the lives he destroyed, he took the easy way out. No capacity for empathy, the inability to take responsibility for one’s actions, and lack of value placed on human life are all symptoms consistent with socio and psychopathic behavior.
Death is a natural part of life. It is only the living who suffer once our loved ones are gone. For the families in Newtown, the suffering has been abundant. When my grandfather passed away, I went through all of the stages of grieving one goes through after a loss. The stages passed fairly quickly, though, and I was able to accept his passing, not because I loved him any less, but because death was something we expected would happen to someone nearing 85 years of age. When my cousin Jack was brutally beaten and murdered, as a six-week old, the loss was much harder to accept.
Blame comes from anger and it is normal to feel angry when our loved ones die. When Jack died, the blame was centered on his father, Ben. Of course, he also admitted to shaking him violently, dropping him purposely and fracturing his skull, and biting him repeatedly. We also blamed his mother for having Jack when she was so young and for not taking better care of her son. We blamed the doctor for not seeing the signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome when she brought Jack in a few weeks before he was admitted to the hospital, because he showed symptoms consistent with a brain injury then. We also blamed ourselves for not being there to intervene on Jack’s behalf and for not being more loving towards one another as a family.
As a collective, we are still in the anger and blaming stage of grief over this insurmountable loss. We are blaming the gunman, as we are enraged that he could commit such repugnant acts. We are blaming the gun manufacturers, along with our government, for ever allowing a combat weapon into the hands of a 20-year-old mentally ill man. We are blaming the gunman’s mother for her reckless choices to have guns stored in her home, knowing that her son was mentally unstable. We blame the news, movies, and media for glorifying violence. We blame schools for not keeping our children safe from harm. We blame each other for being pro-guns or anti-guns. We blame God for ever allowing something like this to happen.
After Jack’s father had been punished for his crimes, we as a family were still left to recover from the loss. When justice had been served by the court, it did not fill up the hole in our hearts. We still had to recover from the sadness, the hurt, the pain and the anger on our own. Let me repeat….we had to recover….on.our.own. The punishment the court had assigned to Ben would not return Jack to us, nor would continuing to hold onto the anger towards Ben for his mistakes. Realizing this helped move me past the anger stage of grieving and closer to acceptance. Sometimes, people mistake acceptance for condoning a loss. Let me be clear here….we do NOT condone what Jack’s father did to him....we have merely accepted that Jack is gone from our lives, and no amount of anger or punishment will ever bring him back. As a family, we agreed that anger and resentment was not the legacy we wanted for Baby Jack.
Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Instead of focusing on what we thought Jack’s mother should have done, or what the doctors ought to have seen, or why Ben did what he did – we stopped lamenting, we stopped bargaining, we stopped the endless argument in our minds of what we could have done. It was over, so what we could have done was irrelevant. Instead, we shifted our focus to what Jack had taught us during his short life and we opted to use those lessons to help us heal. Once we had healed ourselves, we knew we could carry those lessons forward to others. The biggest, the most important, lesson I learned from Jack was LOVE. The day I walked into the hospital and saw him laying helpless and hurt in the NICU, I fell head-over-heels in love.
It was that love that I kept holding onto, kept coming back to, as the storm of anger raged inside me over the injustice served upon Jack’s life. Every time I would sense that the inner judge, the critic, and victim had sat down to have Sunday tea together in my mind, I would visualize returning to that moment of walking into Jack’s hospital room and the feeling of falling in love. This feeling transitioned to the present moment of upset, and I would relent. This practice required awareness and diligence, but ultimately it fostered a great amount of compassion. That compassion eventually extended past the situation with Jack and into my daily life for myself, for loved ones, for Jack’s mother, Jack’s father, and complete and total strangers. Now, three years after Jack has passed away, when I feel angry or anxious or self-critical, I think of holding Jack in my arms, I think of the soft, calm energy between us while I fed him a bottle – I visualize holding myself with the same reverence and I speak to myself as I imagine I would speak to him when he was upset, or crying, or hurt.
As we move forward from the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, we talk about ways of preventing this from happening in another school, to another community. Some of the options that have been discussed are arming the teachers and the principals in every school. There are companies now manufacturing bullet-proof backpacks. The NRA wants to insert armed guards into every school in America. This means more reactivity, more guns, more vigilance. The community is looking to the government to make things right, to resolve the issue of guns and violence in our communities. But, who makes up the government, if not its people? Isn’t it each and every one of our responsibilities to choose whether to continue to promote a culture of violence and hate or one of compassion and love?
Far too often we want someone else to blame and far too often we want someone else to fix the problem, or avoid the issue altogether. If any of us wants to see lasting change in our culture, then we ultimately have to accept the truth – that we are complacent about the amount of resentment and anger we carry in hearts every day. And it is up to each one of us to make the necessary changes to bring a level of equanimity back to our society. The change won’t come from gun regulation or from censorship of the media, it will come from the legacy we decide as a collective to foster for the future.
It is up to me, and to you, to do better.