Monday, January 16, 2012

Thoughts After A Tragedy

One week ago, a colleague of mine was murdered in a violent murder/suicide scenario.  While he was caring for his dying mother, his father went off the deep end and shot him, 2 of his mother’s sisters and himself.  It turns out that the father had already done time for murder and had also stabbed his own father at some point after getting out for the first crime.  It also seems that many people who knew him were scared of him and felt he was easily capable of violence again.

However, I digress.  The point of this piece is not the violent father.  Nor is it the loss of my colleague, to whom I was not particularly close.  The point rather is the complex reaction that I’ve seen around me to the tragedy.

I don’t know for sure when the tragedy was first reported on the local news.  It happened on Monday evening, and I don’t know if it made the 11:00 local reports.  I first heard it on TV on Tuesday morning about 6:45 when I was getting dressed for school.  I know that the administration of my school learned about it sometime late Monday evening, because a mass email was sent out at 11:59 pm announcing an emergency staff meeting for 7 am the next morning. (An email which I didn’t get until I got to school and fired up my email because I am not “plugged in” with a smart phone.) I also know that some people on the administrative team were called at 2 am.

I presume school administrators have some sort of crisis management plan in place with protocols to deal with things like this.  They must have some sort of plan because it seems clear that they acted swiftly to mobilize others.  Before school officially opened on Tuesday morning, there was a team of counselors at school ready to talk with grieving students and staff.   This is just one of many reasons I am glad I am not an administrator. 

I remember that when the tragedies of 9/11 happened, one of the things I thought about was the emotional cloud that hung over everyday life.  In the days that followed, as we were all subjected to daily reports and videos on TV, it felt like everyone was acting differently.  Even though people went on with their daily activities of going to the grocery, going to work, etc… there was a noticeable change in mood.  I think even the mood of children changed.  Even if they were too young to understand the magnitude of what had happened, they felt a change in the adults around them which affected them. At some point I found myself wondering how long the cloud would hang over us to the point where it was noticeable in public.  How long would it be before the tragedy was not the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about before going to sleep?  How long would it be before I would actually go through an entire day without thinking about the tragedy?  I don’t know the answer to any of those questions because I didn’t keep track, but I do know that there did come a point when the cloud lifted and when the tragedy was no longer a part of my daily consciousness.  There was a point at which a direct trigger like a news report was needed for me to remember the events of 9/11.

On Tuesday of last week, as I watched the reactions of those around me to this recent, local tragedy, I decided to pay attention to the change in mood to see how it evolved.  On Tuesday there was a silence at school.  There was not the usual noise in the halls between classes.  When people did speak, they did so more quietly than usual. It was as if the volume of life had been turned down several notches.  “Loud” seemed offensive.  Also, many people cried openly and uncontrollably.  Many other people were on the verge of tears all day.  There was school work that was done, but it seemed to be done with apology and with a feeling that we might as well work because the alternative was to sit around and cry more. 

The only class in which I totally abandoned my scheduled lesson was in Intro to Theatre class.  I had planned to talk about Oedipus the King that day.  Somehow the idea of talking about a man who killed his father, married his mother, had children with her and then gouged his eyes out when he realized the truth didn’t seem to be appropriate for the day.  I asked the kids if they would like to watch a movie instead – they said yes.  In going through the box of the movies I usually show in theatre classes, I found Les Miz – too tragic and violent, Phantom of the Opera – too creepy,  Jekyll & Hyde – both violent and creepy.  Even the old classic The King and I ends in death.   Then I hit upon two comedies I usually show in Acting class: Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.  No death, no tragedy…  Mrs. Doubtfire won the toss.  Finally, on Friday, after the movie was over, we talked about Oedipus. 

Tuesday’s lunch period was difficult.  Many of the people I eat lunch with were very close to our fallen Warrior.  I almost hesitated to go into the room where the teachers eat, and I thought perhaps others would stay away as well, but it seemed people wanted to be together in their grief.  I was also surprised that people were actually eating.  Some people have trouble eating when they are grief-stricken.  The discussion was about our colleague, and about what was being said on the news, and about arrangements that were being made.  A few people, those closest to him, seemed on the verge of tears, but no one cried openly at lunch. 

By Wednesday, the general mood of the school was still somber, but it didn’t seem that as many people were still on the verge of tears.  Perhaps those who had cried were cried-out.  The halls were still quieter than normal but not silent as they had been on Tuesday.

By Thursday, the noise was returning to the halls, and while there were select individuals whose mood seemed to be affected, the number of people exhibiting visible reactions was smaller.  There was even a fight in the cafeteria at lunch (2 of my students).   At some point on Thursday, a memorial had been set up in a showcase in the front lobby, moving some of the flowers and tokens that had been left in the hallway outside his room to a more prominent place.

On Thursday evening, we had our first snowstorm of the season, and there was some expectation that we might have a delay or cancellation on Friday.  Morning travel was challenging for many drivers and some of our busses were late arriving, so the talk of the day became more about the snow and less about the tragedy.  It felt as if people welcomed something else to think and talk about.  The noise level in the hall was close to normal, and talk at lunch was about driving to the funeral on Saturday, also in relation to the winter weather. 

So far, there has not been a day when I have not thought about the tragedy that happened to my colleague and to those in his life.  On Saturday I will attend the local memorial service for him, and I am sure that thoughts about that will stick with me for awhile afterward.   I expect the week ahead at school to be much like last week as preparations for the memorial continue and announcements are made about fund-raisers for the memorial scholarship fund.   When will the day come when I do not think at all about the tragedy?  Of course, noting that day means thinking about it and therefore negates it, unless the realization comes later.

I am left with some questions which will never be answered.  How much of the response to this tragedy was more about the dramatic nature of the tragic event than about him?  How much of this same mood/feeling/reaction would have existed if he’d been killed in a more common way, like a car accident?  What about if he’d had an illness or sudden health crisis like a heart attack?  Did he realize how much he was loved?

Of course tragedies like this serve as reminders to us that we never really know what might happen from one moment to the next.  Are we all living life to the fullest with the idea that any moment may be our last?  Are we all showing signs of appreciation and affection to our loved ones lest this be their last moment?  Are we all truly “not sweating the small stuff”?

I’m sure there will be people for whom this tragedy remains fresh and painful for a long time – months, years.  There will be people who think about it every day for the rest of their lives, but it will pass out of the daily consciousness at school for many people.  It seems trite to say, but it really is true – life goes on and wounds heal.  Sadly, there will always be other tragedies for other people in other schools to deal with.  I hope this will be the last one for me.