Once, when Amelia was just a wee little one, maybe 6 years old, she was going through a particularly hard time. She was so, so worried about an assortment of things; anxious in the way that kids get at that age when development moves them into more abstract thinking. Simply, it is an age when kids start thinking thinks they never thought before, things that never occured to them before, so it is hard for both you and them to get your hands around the free-floating anxiety. They cry for no reason and they are afraid of things, but can’t tell you exactly what it is that is spooking them.
What I remember most about that time was that she stuck very close to me; my little shadow she was. And I too, made extra efforts to be present for her. I allowed her to sleep on a pallet on the floor next to me for a long stretch, and put little notes in her lunchbox here and there for extra bolstering. I went into the back yard when I sensed she wanted to, and asked her to come with me (rather than her having to ask me to come with her.) Simply, I went to her so that she didn’t have to ask me to come to her. Long before she asked or knew what she needed, I gave it to her; I covered her with the notion that I was there for her long before the fear found her. Working the knot from behind, never trying to talk her out of the anxiety or reason it away, but instead allowing her feel my arms around her no matter what. That repeated act of having fear find her yet always finding me there before it arrived, helped.
After several months things got better, and she seemed steadier and more sure. One day, I woke up to a sticky note on my mirror. There, in 6 year old penciled handwriting it said, “Thank you for protekting me.”
In these last days, I have felt very quiet and still. In a space between. Almost in a way like when you hear the sound of your kid’s head as they wonk it on something, and there is that delay before the scream. You know the one I’m talking about, the silent stretch that seems to last eons in which they simultaneously realize how badly they are hurt, and are drawing in the deepest of breaths to sound the loudest cry of alarm they can muster? Yeah. That’s where I am….I am in that space in between. Gasping.
I am no different from anyone in the level of grief and anger I felt as a parent with what happened at Sandy Hook. And as a mental health professional, I have no answers to the whys. I could explain to you how to treat the trauma of the people there, and the phases of grief we will all go through. But honestly, that sensitive and long task needs to be private and guarded for those people.
Psychobabble doesn’t help when we are gasping.
I love Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers has been a guiding light for me in finding a pathway to talk to kids traumatized by their abuse and neglect. I have learned more from Mr. Rogers professionally than in all of grad school; he has made me a better parent and person for sure. I think I have memorized every word that man said and I use those quotes endlessly my work and life. Even this thanksgiving, one of his quotes served as the center of the prayer I offered about the importance of traditions.
“What Would Fred Do?” is my compass.
And of course, as they say about kids not remembering what you said but how you said it, I realize that how Fred said it is at least 50% of the equation. When I get a very skittish kid in my office, I invoke my “Mr. Rogers voice,” one with a softer and slower cadence. Words spoken slowly, allowing tiny anxious ears the time needed to hear each and every one; and giving the space needed for a frightened brain and heart to absorb.
In a psychojargon world of parenting, Mr. Rogers spoke the basic truth of what children need simply and softly; offering instinctually human solutions to the most difficult things. While we were busy searching for all kinds of theories and techniques on the internet, our kids were in another room watching the Neighborhood getting just what they needed from Fred; the sense that they were special and loved and safe. Mr. Rogers gave us parents the words and modeled the actions to do just that. He knew that these tiny souls just needed to know they were protected; to feel that there were always grown up arms held tightly around their little chests keeping them safe, even when they were out in the world alone. He assured them that it’s normal to feel scared, but reminded them that they were protected when that happened.
So in the last days, seeing the Fred quote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” posted over and over on Facebook gave me some comfort. Comfort in the way that I knew something good was happening; something useful was being floated out there in the face of the all too soon brittle arguments of why. Fred’s words were being spread like a virtual warm soft quilt under which we could all gather and warm and feel safe.
I have used that exact quote in healing the traumatized kids I see, but more often I have used it with my own kids as they grew up. We would pass a scary car accident, and the first thing out of my mouth was always “Don’t look, cover your eyes,” (but they always did.) “Look how many people are helping,” I would tell them as they peeked between their tiny fingers, “See?” I would say, “There are always people who will help.” And when something at school didn’t go right, and they were tangled up in the scariness of it all I would assure them, “There are always people who will help, and I am one of them. No matter what, someone will help you get through this.” Even now, with my big one far away at college, I assured him before he left that nothing, and I mean nothing is beyond help.
See, Mr. Rogers knew knee jerk where we must go to be calmed in the face of tragedy. He understood the importance of instilling this sense in our kids from childhood, and knew that some of it should be offered newly in the face of fresh tragedy. Simply; that scary things will happen, things we can’t explain, but that the answer to tragedy is not in knowing why but in knowing and feeling the sure sense that we will be helped through it. That when we are scared, someone always loves us and cares about us no matter where we are, or how old we have become, no matter how awful it seems or how lost we think we are; someone will find us and help.
There is an old adage about people drowning in the river and the exhaustion of pulling them out. At some point someone says, “Lets see what’s pushing them in the river.” Mr. Roger’s understood how to keep kid’s feet planted firmly on the shores in the times of floods of tragedy; it was done through what we said to them, and how we said it to them; how we parented them. He knew how to reach from behind a kid and keep two arms tightly wrapped around those tiny heaving chests, his palms calming their racing hearts. He knew to point out the helpers. He knew that this was what was needed for a kid to believe and trust in putting one foot in front of the other again. To soothe.
We awaken these last days now to the stories of the ones who helped. The custodian who ran down the halls warning, the person in the office who wisely flipped on the loudspeaker and finally, the teacher who put children in cabinets and closets and somehow hushed them in the face of the unhushable, perhaps using a Mr. Rogers voice to do so. It as if the media is finally saying, “Look. See. Look at all the people who were helping.”
Fred’s words will help our kids now of course, as they always have. But let us not forget the profound ways in which his words can help us grown ups; how they can cover and blanket that indescribable place of childlike raw fear we are all feeling these last days. How they can hold two hands over our hearts, tightly in the gasp. And most of all, how his softly spoken words can calm at least somewhat, that vapory free-floating fear that has settled upon us, as we as adults start to think thinks we have never thought before; that bad could come and snatch our children in safe places like movies and school.
I am not saying that there is a way to feel good in this, or feel better in all this. There is no feeling good, there is no positive spin in all this. Children and teachers died. No one will ever be able to make us feel better about what happened. We will forever be sad. But what I am saying is that Fred offers us comfort, and the courage to put one foot in front of the other because others will help us do just that.
Thank you Mr. Rogers for giving us again and again what we need; for the assurance and wise words spoken at a slow cadence we can absorb in this profoundly wounded place, and for giving us the tools to provide what our children need right now and always. But more so, thank you Mr. Rogers for placing your arms around us grownups these last days, holding us tight and calming our racing hearts, telling us its normal to feel scared, and for protecting something in us in this awful and scary place. Thank you for being there for us, even before we felt the fear….as we gasp.
Thank you Mr. Rogers, for helping.
And thank you Mr. Rogers, for protekting me.
“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”