I am sure that all of you know about the horrible killings in Newtown CT. A 20 year old gunman shot 20 first graders and six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary school. Prior to going there he shot his mother. Finally, he shot himself.One of the children killed was the daughter of a Klingberg employee, Ana Grace Màrquez Greene. Her mother, Nelba Màrquez Greene, is the Director of our Family Therapy Institute. Her father, Jimmy Greene, is a jazz musician.
I spent much of the week helping our Klingberg community absorb this tragedy.Staff and clients were deeply impacted by these deaths, Ana’s and the other 26. As an administration, we wanted to provide space for staff to discuss the events and to explore their feelings and reactions.
We transformed our former reception area into a Room of Reflection. We added soft lighting from lamps, plants, pictures and stuffed animals. We had a bulletin board. I originally thought that would be for staff messages, but instead people posted articles, poems, pictures, etc. AND copies of staff emails they felt were moving. We had a book to sign in and write a message, and a basket for cards. The newspaper article with the pictures of all 20 children was posted. All in all, it was a place where people could sit and reflect or talk with others.
We noticed that the room of reflection had a purpose far beyond its actual use. Often people looked in and said “I’m so glad you are doing this.” Whether or not they chose to hang out there, the room was a statement that we knew our staff were having deep feelings about this event, and that thinking and sharing were important and worthwhile activities.Similarly, the discussion groups we organized had unanticipated results. We set up several times to accommodate the complex schedules of an agency like ours. During those times staff were encouraged to come to the Room of Reflection and discuss the way the killings in Newtown and our co-worker’s terrible loss were affecting them. My colleague Steve Brown joined me in facilitating the groups, and we had some ideas to get the discussions started. Not many people came, but those that did spoke thoughtfully and compassionately. They were impacted on many levels. The clients were having various reactions, and staff were creating space for them to explore their feelings. Some outpatient families had lost a child themselves, and were re-experiencing their own losses. In fact, everyone was experiencing their own losses, recent or distant. Many spoke of hugging their own children more. One father reported his child saying “Dad, will you stop hugging me!?” Concerns of personal safety were on everyone’s mind- what is our safety at Klingberg? We constantly deal with emotionally dysregulated people, are we doing enough to increase safety? People worried about the safety of their children and reported on how their children’s schools were responding. My colleague David Lawrence Hawley made the excellent point that “we are no less safe than we were last week, we are just feeling differently about it.” Our wall of denial has been pierced.
Another area of concern was ourselves as mental health providers. Could we have helped this shooter if we had treated him earlier in life? Do we know what to do? Many are not sure. Assessments that we are currently making assumed a greater importance that was scary to some. And it feels like there are so many constraints and so little we can do. People spoke of youth they had known who seemed dangerous, and how little they could get the community to respond because the youth hadn’t done anything serious yet. One therapist describes one such youth who had gone on to kill his girlfriend. So, our confidence in our interventions was shaken, and at the same time we felt the importance of what we do.One unanticipated results of the Discussion Groups was that serious, thoughtful discussions were starting everywhere, outside the discussion group times. This may have been inevitable, but I think it helped that the administration gave permission and acknowledged how important it was to set aside time to share our reactions. As the quote that we posted in our Room of Reflection says:
“Grief wounds more deeply in solitude; tears are less bitter when mingled with other tears. “Agememnon Seneca
Throughout this process we were encouraged by occasional reports of communication with our beloved staff member, Nelba. Her strength, honesty and grace in this terrible situation inspired us all. The family began to sign all communication with the phrase: “Love wins.” So we adapted that slogan. The town also said “We are from Newtown and we choose love.” Even while wrenched with this desperate sadness, the families were reaching for the meaning of their children’s lives, and trying to bring some good from the horror.Then on Saturday I attended Ana’s funeral. This was the most incredible event I have ever been to. Ana’s father is a jazz musician named Jimmy Greene. He plays the sax. He is very connected to the jazz community. The held the ceremony in this huge cathedral church and there were literally over a thousand people there, all races, ages and types, most dressed in purple. Prior to the ceremony the family sent out an email inviting people to wear purple and sparkles because that is what Ana loved.
The ceremony, which they called "A Celebration of Ana's Homegoing", included lots of music, jazz, choir singing, a classical string quartet, etc. The message of the powerful speakers was all positive- acknowledging the sadness and pain, but emphasizing our learning from Ana's short life and becoming more loving.
On every email and communication they have sent out they have ended with "Love wins." I now have a purple bracelet (one of those plastic bands) that says "Ana Grace: Love wins". That was the message of the ceremony. It was so incredibly inspiring.
Now, how do we go forward as the media retreat and the attention moves elsewhere? How do we do the hard work of actually creating the change that children like Ana deserve? It is clear that we must work together, that we must be inspired to fight for what is right. And our efforts will matter because LOVE WINS.