When the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook happened in December 2012, like most parents, I thanked God it wasn’t me and tried to imagine what that would be like. Parents instinctively know that having a child die is the worst thing we can imagine. It’s unspeakable, unfathomable. And while it’s our deepest fear, I think we all have that “It won’t happen to me bubble around us.”. We have to think that to keep our sanity. We feel like we have nothing in common with these people. And, with the grace of God, we never will. Then, it happens to you.
I’m watching Super Soul Sunday with Tywana and Kayla (don’t laugh, it’s a great show), and the parents of little Ben Wheeler are on. Ben Wheeler was a six-year-old first grader on December 14, 2012. He and his mother stopped at Star Bucks for hot chocolate before school that day. He had had a sniffle, but his father decided he could make it to school anyway. They had considered taking him out of school that day to attend a program but decided to do it the night before so he wouldn’t miss school. Little did they know that they would never see him in his body again when they sent him into the building that day.
As I watched the parents of little Ben Wheeler talk I realized that I can never watch another story like that again without feeling an immediate sense of connection with the people speaking. Instantly we had so much in common and so deep. Here are five of the things that hit me most profoundly.
- Ben’s mother and father appeared on the show together– So often, I only hear from the mothers. I keep asking myself, what happens to all of the fathers? Do they just stuff it? Do they not care as much? Are they just not as verbal? Ben’s father was there, and he was just as verbal about their loss and their subsequent journey as Ben’s mother. He was just as concerned about the welfare of their surviving son as Ben’s mother. He was just as devastated and reeling. The couple realized they could not make it individually. They were leaning on each other. So many times in the cases of tragedy, secondary tragedies tear the family apart. People grieve in different ways, and if you don’t come together and do it, it doesn’t work. If you don’t allow space for your spouse to do it in her own way, it doesn’t work. It’s a difficult, nearly impossible balance to achieve, but in the hour they were on the show, it was apparent they were working from a strong foundation, to begin with, and they were committed to not allowing Ben’s sudden passing to rip the family apart.
- Ben’s father said the only tangible memorial to Ben is now his life– There were many memorials to the victims of Sandy Hook, some sanctioned by the families, many not. Ben’s father was grateful for each of them and the outpouring of love they represented. However, he said he was not done with being Ben’s father. When Ben left his body, he did not leave the family, and as long as David (the father) was on Earth, he would remain Ben’s father. That’s how I feel about Shayna. I am not done being her father, and I will not be done until I draw my last breath. David said that he lives to carry on Ben’s legacy. He feels Ben watching over him, guiding him, cheering him on. That’s what I feel about Shayna. David said we have to find a reason to live. I have three- Tywana, Kayla, and Shayna. I need to be here for Tywana and Kayla. I need to make Shayna proud and carry on the work she was sent here to do and continue to do from the other side.
- Ben’s parents experienced sudden loss-There is no way to compare quantitatively or even qualitatively which is better or worse- to have your child pass with no warning. You tell her goodnight, I love you, and the last words you hear are “I love you, too.” or you have a diagnosis and a lingering illness, and you have months or years to say goodbye. I know the pain, shock, and utter disbelief of the former. To this day, over a year later now, I wake up sometimes and think “That could not have happened.”. Sometimes I turn the corner as I go up the stairs, and still a tiny part of me expects Shayna to jump out and say, “Just kidding.” or “It was just a bad dream.” Accepting the reality of the utterly surreal is difficult. I still play out the moments when we found Shayna when we were in the hospital, and the chaplain came to see us, and the final moment when the doctor pronounced her dead. As I type this, my head is involuntarily shaking back and forth, my body’s way of still saying “No” to all of this. It cannot be real.
- Ben’s parents experience guilt for no good reason- As a parent, our primary goal is to protect our children. Teaching them, loving them, providing for them- those things are all important, but fundamental to all of them is protecting them, and keeping them safe from harm. Ben’s parents did not know what was coming that terrible day in December, but they reviewed their actions and played “What if” games with themselves. What if they had kept him home with his cold? What if they had taken him to the play that day instead of the night before? Shayna had a heart condition that we knew about. We took her to the best pediatric cardiologist in the city (the state?) We did everything he recommended and more. We took the most aggressive approach to her condition. Tywana kept a record of every episode she had. We had her wear a monitor for a month. We had her two-year follow-up appointment scheduled for just two months after she passed. There is literally nothing else we could have done, yet when Shayna passed, I wondered what more I could have done. Why didn’t I press the doctor harder? Did I do something wrong when I gave her that last Enbrel shot two days before she passed? I had been giving them to her for a couple of years, maybe I got sloppy. Maybe we should have checked on her earlier that morning. Thankfully, both Tywana and I have put that silliness aside. We did everything humanly possible. Sometimes being human sucks. We like to think we have control over everything. The reality is we have control over virtually nothing. It’s a false sense of ego that brings that debilitating guilt. As Elsa from Frozen so famously said “Let it go.” has to be our mantra.
- Ben’s parents are helping others to help themselves– Tywana and I both have bought into the theory that everything in life happens for a reason. We believe that our family is a soul group, and this journey was planned, including Shayna’s early and sudden departure. We believe that we have goals for ourselves and our family, and that we are on a mission to help others. Ben’s parents have worked to improve gun control, they have gone on television programs and given interviews to inspire other parents whose children have graduated early. Just a couple of days after Shayna’s passing, I knew that I had to do something with this, something to help other people It’s a symbiotic relationship between myself and the people I have reached out to through Facebook groups, my blog, and the chapter of Helping Parents Heal we are about to start. I need them as much as they need me. A year in now, I am encountering parents who are only weeks or sometimes days in, and I know what those first few days feel like. Helping them gives me a sense of purpose. Helping them makes the tragedy take on some meaning. Helping them is what I know Shayna would have me do. Not only would have me to do it, but she’s right here doing it with me. It makes these between days. the days between when I saw her last and when I will see her again bearable, and have some meaning.
- Grief is unpredictable-Ben’s father spoke about how just when you think you have a handle on grief, something will trigger you. I will think I’ve made “progress”, but find myself right back where I started. On the one-year anniversary of Shayna’s passing which I expected to be a fairly ordinary day I found myself feeling like I did in that first week. On the other hand, things I think would be difficult sometimes are easier than I expect. There is no way of knowing which way I will feel until I am actually in the situation.
- The support of community is crucial– From day one, from hour one, Tywana and I have been surrounded by family and friends. The Wheelers have gathered with parents whose children were murdered along with Ben. They have been supported by their friends and neighbors. They spoke of how important this was for their survival. My parents and brother were in the car within a few minutes of getting my phone call and did not leave for a week. Our neighbors have rallied around us. A year later people are still coming by, sending cards and gifts and calling. The purple ribbons on the stop signs and the trees near our house have been replaced with new ribbons. We could not have made this journey without the support of our community.