How do you explain the mass murder of 20 first grade children to your own first grader? Here’s how I did it.
Our daughter hadn’t heard anything about it when she came home from school on Friday. Good! As parents, we’ve always tried to be very open with her about some of the realities of life. After all, she’s a cancer survivor who had surgery when she was five-days old and chemotherapy before she turned two. She’s even attended the funeral of another former chemo kid she had met in the hospital. So we usually talk openly about medical issues and their severity, including the possibility of death and the desire to go to heaven. But the murdering of children is a little too much. So we waited and didn’t necessarily have an immediate game plan.
Fast forward to Sunday morning Mass. Our six-year-old usually likes to follow along with the readings and songs in the book, but I’m not sure how much of the homily she’s able to digest. On this particular day, she was not as focused as she usually is at Mass. Fr. Steve’s homily was all about the Connecticut shootings. But he very skillfully avoided any specific mention of exactly what happened. Brilliant! He delivered a powerful message without scaring anyone.
Later on Sunday, we received an email from the principal about how safety is the district’s top priority and how we should all hug our kids a little tighter, etc. And the school counselor would be available if needed. At that point it still didn’t hit me that we should bring it up… until early Monday morning.
I turned on Way too Early (4:30 a.m. Central Time!) and experienced a tearful half hour of coverage, including pictures and reflections of some of the children my daughter’s age who were murdered. I knew at that point this topic would come up at school, and I’d rather have her hear it from her parents first.
My duty in the morning is to wake her up, get her ready and then drop her off at school on my way to work. My wife was still asleep with our littler one (almost eight-weeks old!), so I was on my own.
Immediately I thought of Veggie Tales. It’s a hilarious animated series that teaches kids to love God. They touch upon real issues but are also careful with their young audiences. For example: In Moe and the Big Exit (the Biblical story of Moses), instead of being killed people are sent “up the river.” In Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen, instead of being killed people are "banished to the island of perpetual tickling.” My daughter gets that. We’ve talked about how these people in the stories died, but the Veggie Tales characters use other terms so they don’t scare children.
So after wiping away my tears, I channeled my inner Bob the Tomato, woke up my daughter and said, "I need to tell you something. Have you ever heard of a place called Connecticut?" She said, “Yes, that was in the homily with Fr. Steve.” She had been paying attention at Mass after all!
I told her that people at school may talk about this “Connecticut thing,” so I wanted her to hear more about it from me. Here’s what I said:
There was a crime (she knows what crime is from Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler. Thanks again, Veggie Tales!) committed at a school in Connecticut. Many children got hurt; some of them even got sent up the river. She said, “ooooh!” The best thing we can do is pray and ask God to bless the people who were hurt and their families. And at school your teacher may remind you and all your classmates how much she loves you and wants to protect you and take care of you. OK?
She said, OK. End of story, at least until she gets home from school.
UPDATE: The topic never came up at school, but she did say that her teacher told them she loved them during morning announcements.