After the Sandy Hook massacre on Dec. 14, 2012, I struggled with the words to encourage my children to go on with life. My son, a survivor whose second grade classroom was mere steps from where the gunman took the lives of too many children and educators, needed reassurance. But I didn’t want to lie.
So I didn’t.
I didn’t tell him this wouldn’t happen again. How could I? What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut wasn’t the first school shooting — far from it. Columbine, Jonesboro, the list goes on. And it wasn’t the first shocking mass shooting in 2012. In Aurora, Colo., that year, a gunman opened fire in a movie theater during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” There were many others that year in towns like Brookfield, Wis.; Oak Creek, Wis. And in cities like Minneapolis. Salons, spas, temples, movie theaters, schools. My children’s school.
So I’ve never told my kids this was an isolated incident. I told them, instead, that statistically speaking it’s unlikely they’d experience two mass shootings in their schools in their lifetime. I’ve told them to be vigilant, to take seriously school lockdown drills and to think critically in an emergency. I’ve told them that while schools might tell them to hide in a corner, if there is a safe chance to exit or a better place to hide, they should do so.
Don’t be afraid to run, I tell my children who are now 9 and 12. It might save your life.
And while I have been careful to shield them from too much coverage of mass shootings and other acts of terrorism, I haven’t really hid them from them either — aside from the Boston Marathon bombing, which I kept quiet about for awhile after. That happened only four months and a day after Sandy Hook, and it was too soon and too close to home.
As the parent of a mass-shooting survivor, I don’t have the luxury of believing this won’t happen to us. Or to our city. Or to our loved ones. I am proof that it can.
But I did believe that once, back before an armed gunman blasted his way into my children’s elementary school and stole the lives of 26 children and educators. In the before-time, it was an ingrained belief that our bucolic community was immune from violence. We lived in a quiet, friendly place where it felt like everyone knew everyone. Neighbors came together for the annual Labor Day Parade, the Duck Race (using rubber ducks) and holiday tree lightings.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, that all changed.
It had been such a normal morning. I’d overslept and had to rush to toss my son’s clothes in the dryer so that he wouldn’t miss the bus. Breakfast, lunch packing, up our long, steep driveway and off to school. I’ll never forget how he stopped that morning, after crossing the road and just before getting on the bus, and turned to look at me. He said, “I love you.”
Not long after he arrived at school, while his class was doing their morning stretches, the peaceful school environment was shattered. At home, my daughter, who was in afternoon kindergarten, was watching a cartoon. I was editing a story for a magazine. While she and I sat quietly doing everyday life things, the sounds of gunshots and screams reverberated outside my son’s classroom door. My son’s class hid and his teacher kept them as calm and silent as she could. They were lucky. The gunman didn’t cross the hallway to their classroom.
The fact is that we aren’t safe anywhere.
In the days, weeks and months after that horrible day, we had to find our footing in life again. Parenting was hard at first. I just wanted to embrace my children and hear their laughter. We spent a lot of time with family and friends. But I had to learn to parent again, to set boundaries, to march on. My mother told me not long after that as their mother, I needed to set a tone for our healing. And as they returned to school weeks later, I encouraged them with a smile, letting them know that brave people were making sure they as safe as possible. But inside, I was gutted.
At school, everything was different. The students were moved to a loaned middle school building in a nearby town. Loud noises caused panic. Support staff helped calm kids. Therapy dogs and an in-school police presence became part of our normal. When my son’s class was continually startled by noises above them, their teacher took them upstairs to find the cause so that they could see it wasn’t a threat to their safety.
In the years since then, so much has happened. We moved away from Sandy Hook. A dream job opened in Maine, and I leapt at the opportunity to both advance my career and raise my children in a place untouched by horrific violence. My kids have grown and matured. But we cannot forget. This is part of our life history.
As a parent, I’ve learned that no amount of locked doors, reinforced glass or sanctuary will protect us from a deranged individual armed with a powerful weapon. Moreover, our country has made a collective decision that “thoughts and prayers” is the appropriate response after tragedies like Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and now Sutherland Springs, Tex. But while well-intended, thoughts and prayers do not bring about change. Only a strong, firm, national shift in the dialogue and decision about the weapons we allow people to have access to will do that.
But the death of 20 first-graders and six educators didn’t bring about that national change. Neither did the deaths of folks out to watch a movie, or those seeing a concert on a nice night. And, for that matter, I have doubts that folks killed while worshiping will either.
My children remember that day in Sandy Hook. They remember how quickly life can shift on its axis. They remember how fragile their school felt after that. I don’t have to explain to them that mass murders happen. They know. But every time another one does, and that’s an instance that happens far too often, there’s a question I cannot answer: Why? It’s the same question I couldn’t answer back then. And the truth is, I really just don’t know. Do any of us?
The United States has decided that the rights of gun owners to possess whatever weapons they want trumps the rights of all other citizens to go about life without threats of violence and mass shootings.
When will this country change?
Every time the alerts pop up on my phone about another mass shooting, it’s like the wind is knocked out of me. Again, and again, and again this happens. And as a mother whose son survived one, I can’t just comfort my children with reassurances that they’re safe. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that none of us are.
But we go on anyway.
Sarah Walker Caron is an award-winning writer, editor and author who shares her experiences as a mother and home cook. A mother of two, she lives in Maine and blogs about food at Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Learn more about her at SarahCaron.com.