In the wake of a string of very bad news this week, it would be nicer to shift our focus to a more pleasant subject. But I would be remiss if I did not heap massive kudos upon the author of this Scary Mommy post for pointing out why we need to show compassion, not shame and blame, toward other parents when terrible things happen involving their children. I need not recount this devastating tale; chances are you know of it already, and if you don’t, well, the article tells you all you need to know.
Melissa Fenton’s post said everything I was feeling in my heart when I heard that some people on the internet were being less than compassionate to these grieving parents. But I also had to ask the question – why are some of us so eager to find fault with a child’s parents when that child succumbs to an awful and devastating accident?
I remember when an acquaintance of mine had his apartment broken into. Right down the freaking front door, apparently in broad daylight, with valuables stolen and the house turned upside down. I remember immediately searching for a reason why this had happened to him – why he was surely at fault for allowing this to occur. Maybe, for example, he had left his car on the street with something valuable inside, or he had forgotten to lock his door, or had been careless about sharing his address online. But the reality is that it was probably just random, and that nothing he did, or failed to do, would have made any difference. In retrospect, I couldn’t process the realization that it could have happened to me. My assigning blame to him for being robbed was my rationalization for how he had surely brought the robbery upon himself, and how I would never let such a thing occur.
Cracked had an interesting article a while back interviewing one of the Sandy Hook parents who has been targeted for harassment by the so-called “truthers”: conspiracy theorists who can’t accept that that the Sandy Hook shooting was a horrible tragedy, and believe the whole ordeal was staged and that no one actually died in the incident. The article delves into the psychology behind this thinking, and offers as a hypothesis the need for humans to make sense and order out of a chaotic and disordered world. Put simply, it is difficult for us to make sense of a tragedy of this scale, which can lead to a spiral of despair and insecurity when we realize that we are not really in control of our lives and our world. For some, the solution is to rationalize that a tragedy of that scale never actually happened. Because it’s too painful to step into the shoes of those parents and feel their pain, the “truthers” have erected this elaborate mental construct to explain away an otherwise unexplainable, unspeakable tragedy.
I have yet to hear any crazy stories about the Grand Floridian alligator incident being an elaborate hoax – and hopefully, we won’t. But think about it: as parents, we have a visceral, raw feeling whenever we hear about a child dying, especially in a horrific sort of way that absolutely shatters us when we step into the shoes of that child’s parents, and imagine what it might be like to suffer a loss of that magnitude. Because the reality is that this could have happened to any of us. I think the reason some people blamed Lane’s parents for not preventing his death somehow was their need to rationalize a tragedy, and to inwardly reassure themselves that this could never happen to me. Is it likely to happen? Thankfully, no, not very. But our brains can go into overdrive, thinking, analyzing, and fearing all the possibilities for harm, serious harm, that our children might encounter. At that point, we are not comforted by the low probability that these kinds of horrifying events will actually come to pass. Instead, we hyperfocus on the fear, and then search for ways to distance ourselves from it.
I don’t offer any of the above as an excuse for people to shame and blame, but rather, as a possible explanation for why we sometimes see that behavior in the wake of a tragedy. I think the more we understand about ourselves, the more likely we are to understand each other, which hopefully leads us to be more compassionate to others in turn. And in the past few days, hearing about all the bad news, violence, death, and sadness, I have observed a good deal of compassion, both online and in person. That’s what I choose to focus on, and happily, it’s not hard to do.