I’ve been trying to explain the Orlando tragedy to my daughter. I don’t think I’m getting it right.
This stuff is hard for everyone. It’s so all-encompassing when giant horrible events occur. They change the air the whole world breathes. And when it happens, helping our kids to process horrific information is difficult for any parent. For parents of kids with intellectual disabilities, it’s trickier than you could possibly imagine. Trickier than I ever imagined.
I’ll admit, I put off this post a day because I didn’t quite know how to write something while breathing the Orlando story air. It just felt awkward somehow. I thought maybe a day would diminish it a little. That was probably stupid. Two days later, the air is saturated.
When horrible things happen in the world, parents of neurotypical kids probably wish they could minimize the horror when trying to explain giant tragedy to their kids. They can’t, of course; bad news is like sex talk. Your kids are going to get it somewhere, so you’d probably better make sure it comes from you.
It’s perhaps a little different for parents of kids with differences that cloud their understanding of the world and who depend on those parents to help them make sense of things. Reasonable fears can very easily become daunting terrors to our different kids, and so there’s a temptation to sugarcoat, to sanitize or to even protect altogether. I don’t think most parents believe that doing so is the right choice all the time, but it sure sounds like a nice option. Given the unexpected power to help shape a world in our kids’ minds, wouldn’t it be nice to build one that doesn’t have AR-15s and BREAKING NEWS and breaking hearts in it?
There’s a lot to unpack for our kids. First and foremost, before anything else, before taking the big hurt and trying to contextualize it in their lives, there comes honoring the dead and the wounded, and the families they leave behind. When the news talks about the killer, that’s one thing. Learn that information, try to grasp that guy and what made him tick, because he won’t be the last. But when the stories of the victims come on, I pay close attention, and I make sure my daughter sees me paying attention. Schuyler and I watch some of those stories together, because I need for her to understand this most of all. Good people are gone now. Not just numbers, and not faceless automatons from a video game. She sees their stories and she gets sad, very sad. But that sadness is appropriate. It’s the part that matters most.
Schuyler has a lot of questions, and so we sit down try to face them together. The problem is, the natural first question is the most unanswerable. “Why did he do that?” I don’t feel stupid for not knowing. I don’t think she expects me to know. I believe there’s a strange kind of comfort in hearing me say I have no idea why someone would do such a thing. For Schuyler, in her delicately crafted concept of the universe around her, I think the idea that there might be a rational answer to that scares her more than the uncertainty. What if there really was an answer? That might make the horrible somehow everyday, a justifiable thing beyond imagining. My impotent non-answer makes the most sense of all, I guess.
I try to explain how anger can make a person obsess, and hate can make them feel justified in hurting others. She asks why gay people were targeted, in a tone that suggests this is perhaps the important part of her question, and for that as well, I’m at a loss. Schuyler has friends who are gay, and a cousin of whom she’s fiercely protective. More crucially for her, Schuyler has a lot of questions about her own sexuality, things she’s sorting through as best she can, with her boy crushes and girl crushes that might turn out to be so much more.
We talk about this again, and I remind her that love isn’t really about boys and girls and who loves which. It’s mostly about hearts and minds, I tell her, and finding someone who loves her and who isn’t careless with the love she gives back. Schuyler could very likely come to personally identify with the LGBT community at some point. I hate the idea that she might be afraid to do so because of what she sees on CNN.
Schuyler’s view of the world is a little fantastical and a little simple. It has room for monsters, but not like these. It has room for sadness and fear, but not like this. And her intellectual disability would make it easy to punt this a bit, to file down the sharp points and distract her until the world goes back to talking about the stupid election and who Taylor Swift is dating. But I refuse to do it.
I’ve said it so often that it has become a mantra. I can promise two things to Schuyler: Love and the truth. That’s an easy promise to make most days. On the hard days, when I have to take her innocence and let devils track mud on it, that’s when my promise means the most.
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