Sue Vogelman taught kindergarten and first grade for more than 10 years at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHS) in Newtown, CT. She then served as Church School Director for children, youth and families at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, CT for 17 years. The shooting at SHS which killed 20 students and 6 staff members happened on 12/14/12. Sue was working at Trinity at that time but was also working part-time at SHS. She was in the building every day that week except for the Friday of the tragedy. She is currently working as an educator in Westport, CT public schools.
You turn on the news and the pit of your stomach aches yet again. You don’t want to hear more, you just want to turn it off and hide, but you know you need to pray. When it happened to my school, town, church, and community, I had to become an expert in tragedy. We all did. The world was at our doorstep (literally and figuratively) and it was so unexpected and disconcerting that when I was asked to write this article to help others be prepared, of course I said, “Yes.”
While I continue to hope that I won’t have to share my first-hand experiences again, I’ve done so several times just this month alone. This December marks ten years since our world changed. Looking back, it would have helped us to have these basic supports ready. Looking forward, here are my suggestions for formation support, should you need them. And I hope and pray every day that you don’t.
Responding to Mass Tragedy as a Faith Community
Turn Off The News
In the immediate aftermath, turn off the news. At least keep it off when children and teens are within earshot. The worldwide media that descended on our little town was invasive and often gave incorrect information which was very confusing and upsetting to our community. Hearing the name of my hometown on national news every day for weeks, months, and still, ten years later, was and is so jarring. Turn off the media.
Keep (Some) Routines & All Promises
Keep to some routines. You can adjust things that need to be canceled but keeping some comforting routines will help children see that not everything has changed. Keep all promises you make to children and youth during the crisis. In other words, do not make promises you cannot keep. It is important that they can count on you and your church community when all else is in chaos.
We held our Sunday morning services at their usual times and had Church School in our usual 11 classrooms. I did adjust the curriculum for the weeks immediately following, as needed. For younger children, we stuck with the Gospels of Advent since the lessons were exactly what they needed to hear: “And the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid.’” We had to take a break from any violent Old Testament story lessons for a few years. I gave a handout about what to say and what not to say (a simple one-page version) to all my volunteer church school teachers who were terrified about having to talk to the kids. Have that one-page sheet ready ahead of time.
Have Prayers Ready
Formation leaders responded to my online pleas for child-centered prayers because my brain just couldn’t sift through all that was happening enough to allow me to write. Have some prayers ready. You’ll be praying a lot.
Create a List of Grief & Trauma Counselors
We did have therapists and counselors join the classes and adults on that first and some following Sunday mornings including anniversaries. Have a list of trusted professionals ready. Do not wait until you are being bombarded by phone calls and emails from people “wanting to help.” You should have a list of safe grief and trauma counselors, so you know who to call.
Find help to cope with your own fears. Provide adult support so that the adults can provide for the children. Self-care is not an option; it’s a requirement. There were a lot of dark circles on faces in our pews. Have a self-care support system ready. We had an increase in suicides, divorce rates, substance abuse and more after our tragedy. Share the professional resources for these situations often and make it okay to ask for help – please don’t wait for a tragedy.
We had therapy dogs join us for weeks/months/years. A tail wagging at the altar rail for communion was something that made us smile (during a time when there were very few smiles). The dogs helped many children be able to return to school and attend other events in our community. These furry comfort animals were such a big part of our lives.
I once overheard my 10-year-old son tell his cousin about our therapy dogs. His cousin said, “You are so lucky to have dogs at school every day.” My son responded, “Yeah, but the reason we have them is really bad.” Look for your local therapy animals; maybe consider bringing some into your house of worship now. That way you’ll all be comfortable should this need arise.
Keep Hands Busy
Having something to do with your hands was a huge help. We used scratch-off paper angels for the kids to respond and wonder after the Advent II Gospel that first Sunday. They scratched in silence and with conversation. We used art and action to express our thoughts, feelings, and prayers over time. We did a prayer weaving activity, had sand to trace prayers in, made finger paintings, signed banners for other communities, made care cards, created lighthouses, made sandwiches, painted murals, and more.
Conversations with Children
Gather for Conversation
Gather together to allow sharing. Be available to talk to kids. Sharing can be very healing for everyone. Silence can make children feel isolated and may convey the message that they should limit their grieving. Like adults, children grieve at their own pace. Respect where they are in that process.
Don’t force children to share or talk; let it come naturally. During the children’s liturgy the Sunday two days after our shooting, a 6-year-old child raised his hand during the prayers of the young people and said, “My friends and principal were killed. They died.” So I told that child how it made me sad, and how it made God sad. We talked about how God sends angels to give us important messages like, “Do not be afraid.” We talked about how prayer helps us not to feel afraid. And so we prayed for that child’s friends and teachers. We prayed for our families and community. We prayed for our first responders. We prayed and prayed. Then we made hearts to give to the families and friends of those killed.– hundreds and hundreds of paper hearts (cut out by volunteers who wanted to help).
Be supportive and sympathetic but avoid overreacting. Don’t try to make it okay; let them express fears, thoughts, and worries. Give honest information about the tragedy and deaths based on the child’s maturity level. Always be truthful; “I’m sad, too.” Avoid euphemisms with children.
Offer Separate Space, If Needed
Parents were worried about sending their children who weren’t at SHS (Newtown has four elementary schools) to Sunday School class because they thought the SHS kids might share too much – exposing the innocent to too much information that might be disturbing. So we had a place for the SHS kids to go talk quietly when they needed to do so rather than share with the whole class. But we also reminded parents that their children will hear things – on the bus, at soccer, and talking about it with a trusted adult in the room is a better way for their child to process. God understands hard things. Jesus cried.
It’s okay to say that you don’t have all the answers: Validate thoughtful questioning.
Supporting Older Children & Teens
Older children are drawn together in situations of tragedy and will draw strength and support from each other. Give the teens choices about what they want and need. Our teens found solace in taking action and helping others. Foundation fundraisers, workcamps, service trips, and community service all continued to be an important part of our healing.
Ben’s Lighthouse was founded in Trinity parishioner Ben Wheeler’s memory. “Helping is healing” was the motto for those first few years along with, “Stand tall, shine bright.” I led and chaperoned several youth trips for Ben’s Lighthouse across the country. Our teens were shining examples of the light in the darkness. Now those young SHS student survivors continue to light the way as teens and young adults
Advice for something like this is hard to give. I have a long list of bible verses, song lyrics, and quotes about the light in the darkness. Focusing on the light in a dark place was and is where I draw my personal strength. Have that list ready. I will share my list with you if you need it, but I hope and pray you don’t.
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:2-9, ESV
Featured image is provided by the author. She indicated that the candles were made into the shape of a heart and lit at services for the anniversaries of the loss that the Sandy Hook community experienced. The colors of the candle arrangement represent the school’s colors, green and white.
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