We Are Sideline Grievers: Honoring the Angels and Heroes Newtown, CT
I bet every one of us has hugged our children a bit more often…and a bit tighter…since last week’s horrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary. We are all struggling to come to terms with what happened.
I’ve been quite sick for the past few days, so I apologize for this delayed newsletter. However, my mind has hardly strayed from thinking about the Angels and Heroes who lost their lives…or the loved ones left behind.
We are “sideline grievers.” Most of us did not know those Angels and Heroes personally. We aren’t experiencing their direct pain. But, we ache on their behalf, wishing we could wash away their pain and take away their sorrow. Grief is such a helpless feeling for anyone, especially those most closely affected.
But, today, I want to share some thoughts specifically for those of us are that are on the sidelines. What can we do? How should we feel? I’ll start with a couple of stories…
I’ve been experiencing “sideline grief” for several months over Baby Kenley, the 18 month old daughter of my son’s teacher. Six months ago, I wrote about this tragedy that hit close to my heart in one of my weekly newsletters.
As I tried to come to terms with Kenley’s passing, I thought of something special my dad does to commemorate a person who has passed away. He asks himself, “What virtues, values, or traits did this person best exhibit in their life that I can use to make me a better person?” It is a very deliberate way to honor the person and keep their memory alive.
However, my next thought was, “What do you take away from an 18 month-old who was just getting started in life? Just beginning to explore her world?”
And then, like a bolt of lightning, I got it…It is her spirit! It is her spirit of unconditional love, total honesty of emotions, unbridled curiosity, and sense of exploration. Our spirit is all we have when we come into our life and it is all that is left when we go. Kenley didn’t have time to be anything but a bundle of spirit. This is her legacy.
To me, Kenley personifies the most valuable element any human being has to offer. The experience of humanity is not about how much money we make, how successful we are, or even what we do with our time. It is about respecting and loving our spirit and the spirit within everyone around us.
If you read my newsletters regularly, you know that the message about honoring the “Kenley Spirit” in our children and students has been a recurring theme ever since. Sometimes, the theme is more subtle than others, but it is always present in my heart.
I know of at least one family touched by Kenley’s legacy. This past July, I attended a week-long conference on ADHD with Dr. Ned Hallowell and 17 other families on Michigan’s gorgeous Leelanau Peninsula. Parents spent the mornings with Dr. Hallowell while the teens spent their mornings involved in “adventure learning” activities. The afternoons and evenings were free for families to enjoy time together.
As Dr. Hallowell closed out Tuesday morning’s session, he begged us not to put too much pressure on our kids to do well in school. He explained, “They may not be able to excel in school, so don’t put that burden on them. Grades do NOT determine success. Focus on building their character, their confidence, and celebrating their interests…” he encouraged.
Many parents struggled with this concept. After all, our society places almost 100% of our value on our academic accomplishments. Parents challenged Dr. Hallowell a few times, but he kept insisting, “I know many millionaires who earned ‘Cs’ and ‘Ds’ in school. They became successful because they had grit and confidence. Grades are not everything!” But still, two moms in the room could not fully grasp how to release that pressure.
He was asking them to honor what I’ve come to affectionately call the “Kenley Spirit” in each of their children. I chimed in to briefly tell about Kenley and the lesson I had learned only a few weeks earlier.
I choked through tears as I said, “If her mother and father were here right now, they would tell you…forget about school for a little while. When you are reunited with your kids in a few minutes, give them a hug. Tell them you love them. And go enjoy this glorious place with them today because that is ALL that matters.”
Suddenly, I noticed several other parents wiping tears from their eyes (moms and dads). Dr. Hallowell smiled and concurred, “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying…honor their Kenley Spirit! Perfect!”
The next day, one of the two moms who had specifically challenged Dr. Hallowell the previous day, shared a big breakthrough she had made with her teenage daughter. I’ll call this mom, Maria.
Maria explained she had been at odds with her daughter for several years. Her daughter was so opposed to spending the week in Leelanau that she had spent all of her time, since arriving in town, actively ignoring Maria.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, Maria greeted her daughter with a hug, just as I said Kenley’s mom would request. Her daughter shrugged the hug away, but Maria remained undeterred.
She told her daughter, “I would like to eat one meal with you today. You can decide if it will be lunch or dinner. You can ignore me the rest of the day, but please give me one meal.” Her daughter chose dinner and selected the restaurant.
At dinner, Maria opened up to her daughter. “I owe you an apology,” she said. “I’ve been putting way too much pressure on you to do well in school. And, I learned today that I’ve been wrong…”
Maria was glowing Wednesday morning as she proceeded to tell us how the flood gates opened. She and her daughter talked for hours and both apologized for a lot of things. Maria bravely admitted to her daughter- and to all of us in the room- that she had a drinking problem and knew she needed help. Dr. Hallowell kindly spoke up and offered to talk to her later that afternoon.
On Friday of that week, as we all exchanged hugs and shared our goodbyes, Maria thanked me for sharing Kenley’s story, saying that Kenley had saved their family. When my husband and I pulled out of the parking lot a short while later, we saw Maria and her daughter walking arm-in-arm towards their car. I wish Kenley’s parents could have witnessed that miracle!
Kenley Has Touched A Classroom, Too!
Just yesterday, I shared this story with my dear friend, Amy. Amy is a teacher at my children’s school. Amy was kind enough to let me vent a lot of “grief” about Kenley over the summer and has continued to be very supportive. She is also very supportive of my professional work and reads my weekly newsletters faithfully.
Yesterday was her last day of school before the holiday break. We got together for a “kid free” dinner to celebrate. Naturally, we talked about last week’s tragic events. I told her I had not written my newsletter yet this week. “I’ve been telling myself it’s because I’m not feeling well,” I confessed. “But, I’m probably just putting it off because I have to address Sandy Hook and I don’t know if I have it in me.”
Amy went on to tell me that she was also inspired by Kenley’s message. She told me that she and her teaching partner, Kathy, had made it their personal mission to honor the individual spirits within each of their students this school year.
“They can try my patience,” she admitted. (And we can all relate!) “But, it’s been so rewarding! Come to think of it, we got a lot more notes from parents this year with holiday gifts, telling us how much their children like being in our class. I think we are seeing the rewards from actively honoring the spirits of our students.”
Thank you, Amy, for sharing your experience! (And, for giving me the nudge of strength to write this week’s newsletter!)
Back to Sandy Hook…
If we could ask any one of the grieving parents what we can do to support them, they might ask us for prayers. They might tell us about a cause they are supporting in their child’s honor. But, I guarantee, that whatever they would tell us, it would include a message like this, “…And never take your own children for granted. Love them. Hold them close. Don’t let them get under your skin too much. Feel blessed to have them. If you can do this, you will honor my child and help fill this vacancy in our family.”
If we could ask family and friends of the Heroes that died last Friday what we can do to support them, they too would likely ask for prayers. But, then, they would tell us how proud they are of the sacrifice made by their loved one. They would ask us to honor them by being an Everyday Hero to the children in our lives. If we can do that, we will honor the vacancy in their hearts, too.
Finally, if we could ask the gunman’s mother what we could do for her, she would ask us to be on the lookout for parents who need help. She would ask us not to judge them. Instead, she would ask us to offer them love and support. They need a lot of help and likely don’t have the first clue where to go or who to ask. They have likely been shunned by many educators, healthcare providers, and fellow parents over the years and are suffering in silence.
If we can do that, we will ensure that not a single Angel or Hero died in vain last week!
The key to really supporting these families is not just to do something today, this week, or over this holiday season. It will be to remember these lessons six months from now…six years from now. Adopt one – or all- of those Heroes and Angels as Guardian Angels over your family or classroom. Let them shine as reminders of the Truth.
And the Truth is this…evil walked into Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday morning. It had a home in the heart of a troubled soul. It had life for only a few minutes. Its effects, of course, are ever-lasting. But, evil no longer stands in Newtown, CT. It has been drowned by a tsunami of love that comes from the deepest corners of millions –if not billions- of souls. Love from strangers, from all corners of the globe, is surrounding every person affected by this tragedy.
And, Love lives.