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Broken Heart

By Sheryl Paul
December 18, 2012

How do we understand the tragic event at Newtown? What do we do with our grief?

My heart is broken. When I first heard the news, I had to suppress the torrent of tears so that my sons wouldn’t inquire. I couldn’t let them know. Given that we homeschool, it’s likely that they’ll never know. If the adults around me (including myself) can hardly process the event, there’s no way that my son could make sense of it. It would lead to years of nightmares and fears that would appear in the darkness while falling asleep at night. It could only show up as anxiety, as it’s too much for my young, highly sensitive son to assimilate in a healthy way. We choose to protect him because we can.

At dinner that night, my husband and I looked at each other knowingly across the table. Our eyes spoke what our mouths couldn’t say, the questions that seared through our hearts alongside the grief: “How could this happen? Those parents… how will they survive their loss? What’s wrong with our world? What can we do?” After dinner, I felt irritated with my older son. His every word and move were grating on me until I realized that the irritation was a protection against the heartache, the fear, the vulnerability of loving him so deeply that if something happened to him a part of me would die. As soon as I made the connection, I looked at him with pure tenderness, held his face in my hands, and, with tears in my eyes said, “I love you infinity.” I still had to hold back the tears, and I could feel them building force behind my eyes.

As soon as both boys fell asleep and I had a chance to read more about what had happened, the dam broke loose. My body shook with heartbreak like it hasn’t shaken in a long time. Senseless, horrific, unimaginable, terrifying, devastating. Why? How? Those children. Those teachers. Those parents. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how you will survive, but somehow you will. This shouldn’t ever happen. Ever. I’m so sorry.

In the days that followed, I looked to my spiritual mentors for guidance and answers. There is great wisdom in the world, and I’m grateful to have access to wise and compassionate words that travel over the virtual airways, but the problem seems bigger than anyone can contemplate and I found myself shutting my computer feeling unsatisfied. I spent hours talking to my closest friends about what happened, trying to piece together a semblance of a hypothesis about what needs to change. My wise friend, Lisa, said, “It’s a call for attention. It’s a lost, enraged, scared, unbearably devastated and hopeless person who doesn’t feel seen and is screaming out for attention and feelings of importance, even if that attention and sense of importance is obtained for unspeakable reasons and posthumously. This person is not separate from any of us.  This person has sprouted from the seeds of the ills of our culture which lacks a sense of meaning, honoring, and importance of place and purpose within the whole.”  She sends me a link to this article by Laurie A. Couture which says, among other things:

“At the heart of every act of violence is child trauma. At the heart of violence so extreme, such as taking the lives of innocent children, there are deep, chronic unmet needs….there is a disruption that could find no relief anywhere else in life’s offerings. To discuss these issues is not to make speculation about the family, or to in any way condone violence. Many people are fearful that empathic understanding of violent people negates responsibility or condones actions. Empathy does no such thing. Empathy in these situations allows us to stop, connect to the humanity and suffering in people, and to realize that crucial and immediate paradigm shifts are in order in our culture’s way of parenting and educating children in order to prevent future tragedies.”


We talk about lack of community and attachment villages and also about nutritional deficits, and she sends me an article by Adrie at Fields and Fire who says,

“Mental illness and behavioral disorders are hugely affected by diet – give lab rats a diet based mostly on refined carbohydrates (like white flour and white potatoes) and sugar/corn syrup, and they literally go insane. People do, too.”

In my desperate need to make sense of this, I reached out to one of my spiritual mentors, Chris Mercogliano, author of my all-time favorite book on parenting and education, In Defense of Childhood. He wrote back immediately with piercingly insightful comments, as well as an article that he wrote after Columbine about the social hierarchies in schools that lead to devastating plummets in self-worth. This topic has received attention in the news lately, and while it certainly isn’t the whole picture or the singular answer, it does provide a piece of the puzzle that I believe deserves serious attention. For the full article, click here. He also quoted a wise young woman who points out the responsibility of parents to show up more attentively with their kids. Chris asks:

WHAT ARE THE TEACHINGS of this tragedy? I ask the question because if we can learn enough from this one to prevent yet another, then those young people will not have died in vain. Consider the words of Marcy Musgrave, from a column she wrote for the May 2 edition of the Dallas Morning News. A junior at Texas A&M University, she proposes that her yet-to-be-named generation, which follows Generation X, be called Generation Why. Here is her explanation:

“After the massacre in Littleton, I realized that as a member of this generation that kills without remorse, I had a duty to challenge all of my elders to explain why they have allowed things to become so bad. Why did most of you lie when you made the vow of ‘til death do us part? Why did you fall victim to the notion that kids are just as well-off being raised by total strangers at a day care center than by their own mothers or fathers? Why is work more important than your own family? Why does the television do most of the talking at family meals? Why is money regarded as more important than relationships? Why is ‘quality time’ generally no longer than a five- to 10-minute conversation each day? Why do you try to make up for the lack of time you spend with us by giving us more and more material objects that we really don’t need? Why haven’t you lived moral lives that we could model our own after? Why do you allow us to spend unlimited amounts of time on the Internet but still are shocked about our knowledge of how to build bombs? Why are you so afraid to tell us ‘No’ sometimes? Why is it so hard for you to realize that school shootings, and other violent juvenile behavior, result from a lack of your attention more than anything else?

Rude awakenings like the Columbine massacre probably will continue until you begin to answer our questions and make the changes to put us, your kids, first. You might not think we are worth it, but I guarantee that Columbine will look like a drop in the bucket when a neglected Generation Why comes to power.”


I derive solace from Trent Gilliss at, who shares this passage from the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh:

“What we see, what we hear, what we eat, always water the seed of violence, the seed of despair, the seed of hate in us and in our children. That is why it’s very urgent to do something collectively in order to change the situation. Not only educators, but parents, legislators, artists, have to come together in order to discuss the strategy that can help bring the kind of safe environment to us and to our children where we shall be protected from the negative watering of the seeds in us. The practice of transformation and healing could not be effective without this practice of seeking or creating a sane environment. When someone is sick, you have to bring him to a place where he or she can be treated and to heal.

“If the human person is affected by the poison of violence and anger and despair, if you want to help heal him or her, you have to bring him or her out of the situation where she continues to ingest the poisons of violence. This is very simple. This is very clear and this is not only the job of educators. Everyone has to participate to the work of creating safe environments for us and for our children.

“…there is a seed of anger in every one of us. There are many kinds of seeds that lie deep in our consciousness, a seed of anger, a seed of violence, a seed of fear, a seed of jealousy, a seed of full despair, a seed of miscommunication, a seed of hate. They’re all there and, when they sleep, we are okay. But if someone come and water these seeds, they will manifest into energy and they will make us suffer. We also have wholesome seeds in us, namely the seeds of understanding, of awakening, of compassion, of nonviolence, of nondiscrimination, a seed of joy and forgiveness. They are also there.”


Right now I have no concrete answers, only a heart broken into a thousand pieces. We can – and must – hypothesize about the myriad reasons that conspire to create such rage, self-loathing, and mental illness, but they’re only theories, ideas, attempts to concretize the amorphous realm of soul-searing grief. We need answers. We need solutions. But I’m not there yet. I can only send out a prayer for a world that needs attention on many levels: May our paradigms of parenting, education, nutrition, and our isolating living situations be revolutionized from the ground up. May we learn how to attend lovingly to our babies and children so that they grow into healthy, purposeful, whole adults. May we find peace. Dear God, please help us help our wounded world. Please show us the way.



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