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Shifting Gears / Grieving in Newtown, after an incomprehensible loss

Published 6:36 am, Wednesday, December 19, 2012
  • A father and daughter visit a makeshift memorial at the Sandy Hook Elementary School Saturday evening, a day after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in the school. Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images / 2012 Getty Images
    A father and daughter visit a makeshift memorial at the Sandy Hook Elementary School Saturday evening, a day after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in the school. Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images

 

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We are all grieving for Newtown and its lost children and for those who cared for them. We are observers, and our grief is the deepest form of empathy. For those who so very much loved those who are lost, grief is an almost unbearable and unsoothable anguish, felt physically, emotionally and mentally. There is not a more difficult and wrenching emotion.

Death of someone loved always brings grief as, ultimately, a healing process. Tragedy adds an enormity to the loss, a sense of incomprehensibleness, of life and the nature of things out of order. The mind struggles to take it in, to make meaning of it. That's what humans do. Our brains are designed to be meaning-making organs. And from the meaning we make, we learn. When loss and tragedy turn life as we have been living it upside down, our struggle to protest the change, to absorb it and then to turn our changed life right-side up is the process and purpose of grief. It takes time, for the brain has a lot of work to do. Grief simply will not be rushed.

Sometimes, death and tragedy become traumas. Trauma happens when the event we must incorporate into our life experience is just too big, too overwhelming, for our brains to process. The event exceeds our coping capacities. The brain's purpose is to adaptively process information, understanding it and learning from it. When this happens, experiences are put to rest in long-term memory. We have learned the adaptive aspects of that experience. We can pull it up and remember it in its details whenever we want, but it does not pop in to intrude upon our present experiences. That would interfere with our adaptive learning in the present.

This is what post-traumatic stress disorder is -- an inability of the mind to complete the processing of an overwhelming experience. Images, feelings (both physical and emotional), and thoughts intrude -- months, years, a lifetime after the event. The mind is crying out, "let me make sense of this." War, auto accidents, rape -- all entrapments with danger -- are huge and, often, incompletely processed events because they have overwhelmed the mind's capacity to take it in. Anxiety and fear shut down the brain's processing.

For children -- whose coping mechanisms are so much less developed than adults' -- trauma occurs much more frequently than adults imagine. Children are always borrowing the coping mechanisms of trusted adults, in large and small ways. When the adults in a child's life understand that something traumatic has or is happening for a child, we can step in and lend them our strength, our understandings, our reassurance that we, together, can look at this trauma, that life heals, that we can go on, that we are safe now even though we weren't safe before. Both of these things are true. Something very scary happened. We were not safe. But now we are safe. None of us live with more reassurance than that. There is no guarantee that life will always be safe for us. But that's OK.

Most of life is safe. Most of life is good. For those sweet children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I imagine that most of their experiences in their brief lives were good, filled with love, curiosity, laughter and a sense of safety provided by parents whose love for them was boundless. The hearts of these parents are broken now.

And they will grieve and grieve and grieve until their minds can make some sort of sense of this loss, loss of a gift they briefly and tenderly cared for, a gift that changed their lives -- I am sure they would say, for the better, the richer, the deeper.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.