The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” —Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor
As a resident of Newtown, I was traumatized, and in denial, when the news broke that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook School. The first reports were unconfirmed, that the principal — or a teacher — had been shot. Details unfolded sparingly throughout the day; anxiety-filled hours dragged unbearably slowly before the worst case scenario was finally revealed: Not only were there multiple fatalities, but also most of the victims were children. And, yes, the principal had, in fact, been shot and killed, along with five other staff members.
Friday, December 14, 2012, was the third time in my 65 years on earth that I recall exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when I heard the horrific news. Just under 12 years ago, the revelations of the 9/11 attacks shocked the world; and, on November 22, 1963, a bulletin from Dallas interrupted all media outlets to announce the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While the disaster of 9/11 cannot be overstated — nor should it be glossed over in any discussion of national tragedies, for me — and for my intention here — it is the assassination in broad daylight of the President of the United States that comes closest in personal horror, and circumstances, to the wanton murders of unsuspecting innocent children engaged in their school routines.
The carefully planned, photographically well-documented, gruesome public execution of JFK — 50 years ago this year — represented a loss of idealism (as a nation), and a loss of innocence and security (as individuals). The indiscriminate elimination of 20 young children and six adults in a bizarre act of unfathomable proportions — just 16 weeks ago — served to remind us that the disappearance of those values and standards remains a collective loss all these years later.... But the heartbreak of Sandy Hook went even one step further by adding the desecration of a sacred Law of Nature: the sanctity of the lives of incorruptible and virtuous children was no longer inviolate.
While much has changed in the past 50 years, the human capacity to love and to prevail has not changed; nor has our response to sudden, senseless, and cataclysmic loss been taken away. Also, our ways of grieving and mourning have not changed — and probably never will. Emotional anguish can be devastating, overwhelming, and seemingly interminable.
Fortunately, there are useful and successful ways to navigate through the dark, murky waters that may mark the journey to repairing a heart, or mending a fractured soul, or a broken psyche. Quoting Viktor E. Frankl, again, from his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human condition. —Graham Green
Writing can be a valuable coping mechanism to deal with grief. Sometimes, being able to talk about one’s feelings is neither possible nor practical for any number of reasons: there may not be anyone around when you feel like talking; or the “right” person to talk to may be as yet unidentified. Such limitations of being able to talk are in contrast to the ever-present opportunities of being able to write.
“Getting it out” can be helpful both literally and figuratively. There has been no precedent for this random act of violence wrought upon young children... As a human being, I was disheartened and discouraged; as a parent I was totally unhinged, inconsolable; but, it was as a teacher that the stark authenticity finally sank in, that I was able to insert myself by proxy into what I imagined to be a horrendous nightmare. What came out was a poem.
Poetry seems to be my particular way of handling incomprehensible heartache or loss. As with many other people that day, my nerves were rubbed raw, my imagination uncontained. It was from that agonizing place that I wrote furiously and unflinchingly to purge as much of the pain as possible: the pressure in my head, the boulders in my heart, the fist clenched tightly inside my throat. Tears poured out, mixed with the words, and stained the pages. “Requiem for a Principal (12/14/2012)” emerged — too graphic, too explicit, too unrestrained; and, yet, as Graham Greene’s quote above suggests, the process afforded me (however briefly) the vehicle “to escape the...panic and fear....”
But, one doesn’t have to be a poet to write a poem. Anyone qualifies. Everyone should be encouraged. It is a valuable way to release tension. There are no rules and no boundaries.
But whether it is poetry, prose, stream-of-consciousness, a journal, a letter, or just a series of explosive words, rants, or expletives, there is little doubt that letting it out is healthier than holding it in. The fact is that once you start writing from such a deep emotional place, honesty and truth are often laid bare. What happens from there can be largely unforeseen; you may not arrive where you thought you were headed, but you usually end up where you need to be — at least temporarily.
The value of reading as a pathway to healing cannot be ignored. Its use is so widespread there is even a term for it: bibliotherapy. Wikipedia defines it as “an expressive therapy that uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy.” My personal experience has been that, by reading poems, I have come to better understand previously convoluted ideas or feelings. The structure of poetry has the unique capacity to clarify and enhance perceptions (for me) like no other form.
Just three days after the shooting in Sandy Hook, blogger Bethanne Patrick wrote in The Huffington Post:
“...the most important thing about reading [is that] reading can help us heal, because it can show us that other people are both like us, and also rare and strange and precious and different. Those of us who know no one in Newtown, Connecticut, still know children, and parents, and families, and we can imagine what our feelings and reactions and deeds might be in a similar situation. Our imaginations are what allow us to sympathize and empathize with others.... My point is to recommend the role of reading, because it does something nothing else can in this sort of situation: It allows us to enter in to the consciousness of other people, especially when those other people are otherwise completely unavailable to us.”
The C.H. Booth Library has made available free books and pamphlets which are aimed at grieving, dealing with loss, saying goodbye, etc. Numerous helpful books dealing with these topics have been written by people who themselves have experienced such tragedies; I’m certain many of these published materials started as “therapeutic” writing: personal feelings, questions, confusion, fear, anger, notes to God or the Universe, letters to loved ones both living and deceased, tributes, eulogies, and expressions ad infinitum.
As I felt the comparison to the gravity of the slaying of the president almost 50 years ago, I began re-reading some of the outpourings of that particular day. To highlight the similarities, I have excerpted several of the sentiments published in the immediate aftermath from around the nation. In addition, I have parenthetically substituted Newtown for Dallas, etc, because the stories sound like they could have been written here.
From the Dallas Times Herald:
“Terrible history has been made in Dallas (Newtown), and the magnitude of our city’s sorrow can only be measured against the enormity of the deed.”
“But this we know, that as a city (town) we must show the world the deep unity of our grief, the depths of the stunned void that is in each of us.”
“What happened here could have happened in any city. But first there had to had to be the seeds of hate — and we must pray that Dallas (Newtown) can never supply the atmosphere for tragedy to grow again.”
And, from The St Louis Post-Dispatch:
“It is a national tragedy of incalculable proportions....What is wrong with the United States that it can provide the environment for such an act? There is sickness in the nation when political differences (read: Gun Control) cannot be accepted and settled in the democratic way.”
Finally, from The Washington Star:
“The loss is shared by all, and it must lead to a sharing of the hard tasks ahead. If the death of President Kennedy (Newtown’s children) engenders bitterness among the people he served, we shall betray his (their) sacrifice. If it brings new resolve to meet the challenge together, John F. Kennedy (Newtown’s victims) must rest content.”
When November 22, 2013 arrives, it will have been 50 years since John Kennedy was brutally removed from office. Three weeks after that will mark the one year anniversary of the tragedy in Sandy Hook. The heartbreak will be exponential if memory of what took place here in Newtown fades — as it has faded over time about that day in Dallas. Also, early in the fall, the 12-year milestone of 9/11 will be upon us. How many of us are invested in such history that has changed the way we view the world, and how we are regarded by the world? Newtown is changed forever. What will we take away from this? What will we give back? None of this will ever cease to matter.
(Michael Luzzi is a freelance journalist and writer with experience as an educator working with at-risk students with special needs. He lives on Boggs Hill Road in Newtown.)