“Nothing here is promised”

I’ve been trying for over a week to write something about the tragedy in Parkland, Florida.

All of the recent mass shootings in America have affected me deeply, but for some reason, this one has been impossible for me to process. Perhaps because there has been so much coverage of the students and parents of Parkland, who are speaking so loudly and eloquently about the horrors they endured, or perhaps because of the shameful reaction from our national government.

My husband asked me if there was a protocol for coping with mass shootings that I and my fellow cognitive-behavioral therapists follow. I so wish there was a protocol that I could share with my patients and readers. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has a lot to say about challenging irrational anxiety, but unfortunately, anxiety about the state of our world right now is completely rational.

I did want to write something, though, as much of what’s written for parents in the wake of tragedies like this concerns how we can help our children cope with tragic news. Less is said about what we horrified and scared parents can do to help ourselves cope.

All I can think to do is share the things that I’ve been doing and have been encouraging patients to do. In no particular order:

  1. Hold your loved ones tight. A clichéd piece of advice, I know. But please, take some time out of your busy day to just be with your kids, to appreciate them and soak them in. If these random shootings have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot predict what the future holds for our children, and we must regard every day with them as a gift. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m convinced is the Poet Laureate of these troubled times: We chase the melodies that seem to find us/until they’re finished songs and start to play./When senseless acts of tragedy remind us/that nothing here is promised, not one day. 
  2. Let yourself feel sad and anxious. Don’t try to push it away. It makes sense to feel sad and anxious. These are trying, scary times. There is no need to “suck it up.” Because sucking it up doesn’t work. Show some compassion towards yourself, and let yourself be sad. If you need to cry at work, cry. If you need to yell and scream, yell and scream. This is important for moms and dads, for girls and boys.
  3. Focus on your boys. And speaking of dads and boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about comedian Michael Ian Black’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, in which he points out that mass shootings are only carried out by boys/men and traces this to our culture’s outdated notions of masculinity. If we keep perpetrating the idea that boys can’t express negative emotions, that they always have to be strong and “buck up,” then we will keep producing boys who turn to violence in order to cope. I like to think that I am raising two boys who are not afraid to express their feelings, but I recognize that I need to be doing more to ensure that this is the case.
  4. Get busy. Here’s where the CBT therapist in me comes out. Active resistance is always a better option than passive resignation. So do what I did: join Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Or Everytown for Gun Safety. And of course, vote for politicians who are committed to changing gun laws, and encourage others to do the same. Donate money to the cause (if you can). Donate your time to the cause (if you can). (But don’t feel guilty if you can’t).

I wish I could say that doing all of this will always make you feel better. But it won’t. There have been moments during this past week and a half when I have been overcome with a despair so profound that no amount of activism or self-care or cookie dough can shake it. When I get like this, I just sit with the emotions and let them wash over me, for as long as it takes.

Moms and Dads, these are tough times. Take care of yourselves, and take care of your kids. And remember: there is light in the darkness. One needs only to watch the Stoneman Douglas students at the town hall meeting to know this. Try to be a force for change yourself, and raise children who are forces for change. As Lin-Manuel Miranda commands us: “Fill the world with music, love, and pride.”

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. DrCBTMom.com combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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