I felt like I was falling. My immediate reaction to learning of Sunday morning’s Orlando tragedy was visceral. I felt my stomach and heart drop before my brain could catch up to put words to my feelings. Grief. Anger. Fear. Above all, confusion. How could someone be so evil? Why would anyone bring a gun to a place of joy?
I quickly confirmed that everyone I knew who had even the most remote possibility of being at the scene of the massacre was safe. They were. My entire focus then turned to my daughters. How was I going to talk to my kids about the Orlando shooting?
Like so many parents, I’ve wrestled over whether to talk to my children about the horrific murders committed by a single deranged man. My daughters are 10. They interact with other children during the day. If they were going to learn about the shooting, I wanted them to learn about it from me, in a way that was honest, age appropriate, and non-sensationalist. I thought long and hard about how I would talk to my kids about the Orlando shooting specifically and mass shooting in general.
The way our morning went Monday, I only got around to talking to one kid. When I picked the kids up from camp, she was the one to encourage me to talk to her sister about the Orlando tragedy.
“Something really bad happened yesterday,” I started.
“49 dead? 53 injured?” she interrupted.
It turns out that she had read about the tragedy in Orlando on the news ticker. There was sports programming playing on TVs at the day’s field trip destination.
I wished I had spoken to her before she’d read those details, but she didn’t seem too traumatized. I got the impression that my willingness to discuss the matter did a lot to counter the children’s fear of this act of terrorism. Their confusion mirrored mine.My willingness to discuss #Orlando with my kids did a lot to calm their fear. Click To Tweet
My daughters are as goofy and energetic as 10-year-olds come, but they are unusually mature. They, like me, feel empowered by information. You know your children better than anyone. If they are at a stage where they still think that everything that happens is because of or about them, they may be too immature to handle the news. Protect them from the television, radio, newspapers, and unthinking adults. You need to decide for your family, for each individual child, how to talk to them about the Orlando tragedy.
I knew that my daughters needed to talk this horrific event through. I explained that a very wrong man went to a place that is specifically intended to be a safe place for gay people to meet and hang out.
“That’s a great idea,” my daughter interjected. “It’s nice that there’s a place where gay people can know that all the not gay people will be nice to them.”
Obviously, my kids were already familiar with the concept of homosexuality. I told them that boys could marry boys and girls girls when they were toddlers. They’ve since noticed a number of lesbian and gay couples among my friends and met kids with two moms.
“But,” my little girl continued, “that makes the bad man even worse. Because he picked a place that’s nice to be mean.”
She was right, I told her. There were five massive ideas at play in the Orlando shooting, as I saw it. She had already identified two: terrorism and homophobia. She brought up 9/11 and we talked about the parallels between the two events for a bit.
It was then easy to segue into the religion part of the discussion. I told my daughter that a lot of people associate terrorism with Islam. A lot of our Muslim friends and family feared hatred from people who painted all Muslims with a single terrorist brush. I confessed that a small part of my choice to keep my married name after divorce was to avoid a recognizably Muslim name.
“But mostly to match us?” she asked. Yes, I mostly kept my married name to match my kids.
“But Mom,” my daughter realized out loud, “Christian people do bad things sometimes, but I’m not a bad person and I’m Christian.”
She was spot on. “What does it mean to be Christian?” I prompted. “If someone hurts a bunch of people, is that following Jesus’ example?”
“No,” she realized, “and he wasn’t very good at being Muslim either.”
Whenever I can, I let my children draw their own conclusions. I learn far more from them than they do from me.
“That’s three things, mom. You said there were five.”
The other two things were mental health and gun ownership. We have depression in the family, so we’ve talked in the past about chemical imbalances in the brain. I told my daughter that there was probably something very very wrong with the shooter’s brain for hmm to even imagine what he had done, much less follow through.
Next, we briefly touched on gun rights. Her father is a soldier, so she’s familiar with responsible gun ownership. I told her that my personal belief is that guns should be treated like cars, with training, licensing, and insurance required.
It was a great conversation, although one I wish we didn’t have occasion for.
“I understand the five things,” my thoughtful child told me, “but I still didn’t understand.”
I told her the truth. I didn’t understand either. No one would ever understand. There was nothing sensible, logical, or comprehensible about what this man had done. The families who are smaller today will never understand why their loved ones will never come home. The big question – WHY? – would always be out there confusing us all.
My daughter accepted my answer. She was old enough to get that this story wasn’t going to wrap up neatly. She asked me to spend the night in her room, because she was sad. We snuggled up in shared sadness, confusion, and complete love and trust.