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Waking up to difficult conversations.

Last Wednesday, as I waited for my coffee to brew, I had a mix of emotions. I knew I was going to have to face difficult conversations with my children about why they did not have school this morning. I also knew I was eventually going to have to explain when they were able to go to school what had changed.

I felt anxious (heart pounding, stomach in knots, throat tight) about how tell my children, age 7 and 11, that they do not have school today because of a threat of violence in our community…. What do I tell them when we get the news that they can return to school because “the threat has been contained”?

I felt angry that I even have to have this conversation and my children know the difference between “secure perimeter,” “lock down,” and “active shooter’.  Wait a minute, do they also know how to talk about their feelings, fears, ask for help, assist a friend in need?

My heart was heavy with the burden of knowing that these threats come from a place of pain. As a mental health provider, part of me feels compassion towards the individual who is creating such fear in our community.  My heart did not lighten when the news that the young women at the center of this story was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Cue the frenzy of responses that range from empathy to hate.

I feel anger towards the media whose job is to keep us informed and yet sensationalizes these stories and the amount of over exposure that 24/7 media provides to us.  What did they not tell us, surely there is more to this story than what we have been told?

I feel gratitude for the administrators of my children’s school (and all the school districts) who are taking precautions today for the safety of all children.  What is being done to identify, support, and encourage students who struggle before this type of outcome? 

Frustration rises up that I am aware too many students struggle with isolation, bullying, desperation, and feelings of being disconnected. Frustration that these students do not get the support they need to decrease the likelihood they act on these feelings in the form of violence to themselves or others.  Why are we still struggling with the stigma of reaching out for help when our children are struggling?  When are we going to start having more conversations about the importance of Mental Health (which is more than simply the absence of mental illness)?  Think about all the time, effort, and money invested in physical health and wellness…. When will we recognize that our mental health is worth just as much?

And then guilt and fear about if I write that… how will it be perceived? How did we get here?

My heart aches for individuals in our community (and nationally) who have survived violence in a school setting whose potential to struggle this week with reminders, anniversaries, media attention, and now another threat.  Every time we have an incident like this it opens up old wounds.  It pokes at “never forget’ and yet we do forget once the immediate threat is over. 

How do I speak up and make my voice heard to advocate for early identification, intervention, and treatment for children who feel alone, isolated, bullied so that we change the conversation and focus attention from the individuals who are creating the chaos to calming the internal chaos felt by the individual?

As both of my children woke up Wednesday, I made the simple statement to both of them: you do not have school today. “One of the most important roles your school has is to keep you safe,” I said. With tears in his eyes my 7-year-old replied, “I was really afraid yesterday, but I also felt safe.” I answered their follow up questions honestly and shared my own range of emotions while validating theirs.

Later in the day we had the conversation letting them know they would be returning to school Thursday.  My almost 12-year-old amazed me with the depth of her empathy and understanding.  “It is so sad that she killed herself Mom”, “she must have felt so alone and afraid to think that was her only choice”.  Thank you that is your response, not everyone’s is going to be as gracious. 

By Wednesday at noon the “immediate threat was contained”.  A collective sigh of relief swept the front range…….  BUT WAIT:

Let’s not get too comfortable now that we feel safe. 

There is an ongoing threat present if we continue to fail to see those around us who are in pain and need connection, community and support. 

It is so easy to go back to our isolated, insolated state until the next time we are challenged to face a similar situation.

It is a human response to start to politicize the issues so that we do not have to feel the discomfort or engage in really challenging conversations that have no easy answers.

Let’s start the difficult conversations with the people sitting right next to us (even when we disagree), recognize the humanity in each one of us and be BOLD.

-Erin Bennetts, LCSW, RPT

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