When Kids Don’t React to Tragedy

Boylston Looking Toward Storrow Drive

Never was Boston so grateful for a Monday: Back to work, back to school, back to routines, after a five-day ordeal shook the city and the world watched. 

Gone are most of the satellite trucks, the clusters of reporters and cameramen, the strands of law enforcement officers for every street on our normal path. By Wednesday, barricades and memorials for the victims of the April 15 bombings, bookending Boylston St., were moved and the street reopened.

One week ago, my innocent concern was for the magnolias on Commonwealth Avenue, and whether they’d be at their showy peak when 23,000 marathoners rose up out of the underpass to greet the last six-tenths of their 26.2-mile race. Last year, the trees bloomed pink and white in March, and Patriots Day was really too hot for running.  

This past marathon morning, my children and I took a break from planting dozens of unpromising looking, dormant rhizomes in our yard, and before noon we walked over in the cool sunshine to see the first hour’s worth of finishers turn the corner onto Hereford Street. We stole some space between a police van and the fence. My little one got tired of watching, and I told the big sisters to not stay too long. They were practically standing on top of the exhaust from the van. I let out the leash a little that day and let the girls walk home on their own, for the first time for that particular route and distance. There were so many policemen around, what could happen? 

Racing against our own gardening fatigue, we dug dirt and forgot to track some friends’ progress, as we normally do, never returning to the course. When my daughter asked about the loud bangs, I attributed them to a lumbering truck.

I gasped when I read the words “Boston bombing” for the first time that day, realizing how our city would be tied to a tragedy, as are other communities who must wear their own sad histories with words like “massacre” attached to their names. I cried when I heard the fatalities included an eight-year-old boy, as my own eight-year-old and her sisters watched their dad take my tears on his shoulder.

Our family is part of school communities that actually had classes in fits and starts last week, while most children were on spring break. So on Patriots’ Day, we left the house after police started to command the streets to find an open store and buy some required supplies for school the next day. With the weight of tragedy on everyone’s minds, I felt a little guilty asking a policewoman some practical questions about how we’d get around.

As overwhelming as the past days have been, the children in our midst will have varying reactions, experts tell us. Some kids may talk about what happened days or weeks from now. On Wednesday, I sat in a meeting – before the suspects were known – at one of the few schools in the Back Bay. Parents gave the counselor examples of their kids’ challenging questions about the bombings. One message: Tell the age-appropriate truth and take all their questions. Once they’re out in the world, there’s no shielding them from what other kids may say. (But don’t try too hard to silence the talkative ones, parents, because your challenge may be irresistible and they’ll tell anyway.) Be reassuring and don’t be afraid to let your own emotions show – recover, and move on. 

My children, for the most part, have been content to go about their business. By Saturday evening, after the shelter-in-place request was lifted, we stepped out for a gallon of milk. As if on cue, 17 matching armored vehicles sped by on our street, unencumbered by the customary traffic, no doubt headed for Watertown.  The kids were wide-eyed, but then it passed. Their need to keep going forward has helped keep me from being mired in thought.

Last Thursday, President Obama mentioned the “Boston diaspora” at the memorial service in the South End. We are not unlike so many people around the world who feel they have a tie to this city. Everyone in the neighborhood, if safe and sound, experienced a close call, or knows someone who did. Despite dodging yellow crime scene tape and SWAT teams for a week, my kids have stayed on the periphery of grownup grief, and I hope that’s healthy.

Why have they not been more upset?

For one – shelter in place – been there, done that. During a hurricane and blizzard in this past year, my homebodies tolerated being homebound pretty well.

And this past week, even with so much attention on Boston, we saw that sources for people’s sadness elsewhere are a constant. Perhaps some concrete reminders of others’ adversity on a regular basis can reinforce a child’s own sense of gratitude for being able to live without fear. Maybe my kids’ lack of reaction doesn’t mean they lack compassion, but that they feel safe enough and are protecting themselves. For children constantly challenged by their own negative family circumstances – poverty, or domestic violence – I’m sure the task is much harder.  

As well, there are the different reactions of our own circle of adult friends. Some called or texted to make sure we were OK, some did not. I know the ones who didn’t aren’t less caring, but, like me, they’re fine with assuming the best instead of the worst.

When the president of the United States and the first lady both drop in, you know something extraordinary is going on. It’s a bewildering amount of focus we received, and I don’t understand it fully myself yet. So many hearts are with the four victims who are gone, their families, and the dozens who are still recovering from serious injuries. I hope the love and determination coming from within our city and without will power everyone through.

Suspect No. 2 was captured after virtually all of Boston spent a beautiful Friday indoors. On Saturday, we woke without a feeling of dread, and the rain came down like tears. Rain will be good for the sad little roots we planted last week, which we hope will grow and bear witness to life going on, with flowers emerging this summer. And for another day, the magnolias on Comm. Ave. still bear their blossoms.

South End Patch