Why We Grieve: Sandy Hook and Other Deaths

Stan Goldberg, PhD

On news shows and press conferences about the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I repeatedly heard things such as

—-Our hearts go out to the families and survivors.

—-Pray for them.

—-Although we can’t understand it, it’s God’s will.

—-This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

Although all were said by well-meaning and genuinely compassionate people, none of these suggestions or explanations were helpful for understanding what I felt.

Blame and Understanding

On the talk shows, pundits placed the blame on the NRA, the easy access to firearms by the mentally unstable, and a culture that idolizes violence. Maybe all are true, but that can’t explain the emotions I experienced when I heard the news.

I didn’t know any of the children or their families, nor have I ever been to Connecticut. Yet I felt grief more appropriate for a family member than a stranger. An easy explanation for my grief and that of the millions who didn’t know the children but feel a tremendous loss is that we are mourning the death of a life—and especially one that is young.http://www.dreamstime.com/-image23006759

But last week only two minutes of news were given to the UNICEF report that more than 500 children have been killed in theSyrian civil war. And I don’t recall anybody I know even mentioning that tragedy or grieving for those children and their families.

Does that mean that I think the grief I hear on television from every newscaster, politician, and talk show host is disingenuous? Absolutely not. But understanding it requires looking at the hidden nature of grief.

What is Grief?

forgivenessWe all are familiar with what grief looks like: crying, emotional labiality, disengagement, anger, etc. But these and other behaviors everyone has experienced are expressions of grief—not grief itself. Those of us who are involved in dealing with people who are grieving try to understand what’s behind the outward expressions. The answers aren’t as straight forward as many believe. We grieve what is lost or what may be lost. Think of grief as concentric circles with you in the middle. The closer the loss is to you, the easier it is to understand.

For example, when  you lose something that is an essential part of your identity, your grief is immediate and as personal as it can be. I cared for an avid walker who developed ALS. When he longer was able to walk through the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park, the grief he experienced was as genuine and profound as losing a life-long loving partner.

The next outward circle is the loss one experiences when someone significant in your life dies or leaves. That person could have been a part of your identity or generated emotions within you that made life meaningful. This type of grief is also easy to understand. We all have experienced it and seen it in others.

But things become muddled when we grieve for someone we don’t know with the emotion usually reserved for a loved one. I watched hysterical people at impromptu memorials grieving Michael Jackson’s death as if he was their son, father, or lover. I doubt few ever met him, and probably none had a personal relationship with him. So why was the grief so profound and genuine?

Confronting Our Fears

I think grieving over the deaths of people we don’t know often has to do with confronting our worst fears or realizing how important the person was for establishing our identity. President Obama said it best when addressing the nation that he was speaking as a father, not the president of the United States. And as those of us who are parents know, at least once in our lives we’ve had the nightmare of losing our children.

With the loss of a child comes not only the loss of a life, but the dreams we had for our children and ourselves, and the loss of a significant role that defined us. When we mourn the death of someone we don’t know, our mourning may be embedded in understanding that potentially, we can experience what their families did. Although it wasn’t my child who died, next time it could be.  The uncertainty of what may happen to us or our loved ones can be as devastating as the actual deaths in Connecticut.

I’m sure, there will be many analyses of what precipitated the tragedy and even more suggestions for how to prevent it in the future. And I’m sure lessons will be learned—and if history is repeated—not applied. But I’ll leave those weighty issues to others. For me, tragedies such as the deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School will never make any sense. But I can ask myself, what was it about this tragedy that caused such a strong emotional reaction in me and others? What is it that we fear so much that this tragedy can press an instant emotional reaction button, and why didn’t that happen when we heard about the Syrian children?

The Lesson

If there is any lesson to these senseless deaths, it is that it forces us to confront our worst fears. Tibetans have a saying, that you should bring the sharp points of life closer to you in order to get over your fears. Unfortunately, sharp points will probably repeatedly occur from events that will be just as tragic—or even more so—than what happened in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Rob Zucker

    Thanks Stan! And thanks to all those who responded to your thoughtful piece. I am privileged to have been invited to speak to a community of concerned Newtown parents tomorrow night at a small, private Pre-school – K school. I’ll be talking about childhood grief and ways to talk to their children about the terrible tragedy in their midst. My wife, an interfaith minister, will be with me, along with a small team of mental health professionals -all available to field questions and perhaps break into some smaller discussion groups. I think I will read Mary Ann Barton’s poem to the group, since it is loving, honest and profound.
    Thank you all!

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for your kind words. I don’t envy the honor you’ve been given. I’ve often struggled with how to explain irrational violence-and especially those that lead to death–to children. My struggle is how to explain something to a person who’s mind hasn’t developed to a point cognitively where they can understand all of the dimensions of an issue.

      I think developing a sense of security and love might trump efforts to honestly talk about these issues–the approach I applaud you for taking. It’s not that I think we shouldn’t explain these difficult events to children, but parents need to understand the “filter” that comes with inexperience. I wish you the best in what I consider maybe one of the most difficult things we can do as professionals and parents.

      Take Care,

    • Mary Ann Barton

      Hi, Rob,
      It’s good to know that you and your colleagues are there for the Newtown community.

  2. Eleanor Silverberg

    Thanks for this article, I think that people who are living in peaceful communities such as in Newtown can relate more than to the Syrian tragedy. “This could have been our community!”.

    As a grief specialist who has developed a grief model, emphasizing in my work moving forward with strength, my concern is how does the city of Newtown move forward with strength. I think it just may be too soon to look ahead… A father of one of the victim’s spoke out and said he is going to help others. Their strength may come from each other…..right now, there is just so much numbness, shock and pain…..living one moment at a time…..

    As you mentioned the children in Syria and Kate mentioning the children in other parts of the world, my heart goes out to them and their families as well…..this raises awareness of the amount of pain and suffering going on in the world…..

    Even though there needs to be stricter gun controls, this goes beyond gun control as you mentioned of violence being entrenched in the cultural DNA (and I see the cultural violence in Canada where I am from) Let’s move forward promoting non-violence, as in the 60’s
    love and peace

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your words of wisdom Eleanor. As I listen to newscasts this morning, I think the political climate here in the States may have hit a turning point. I still have little confidence that politicians will willingly go against the gun lobby and the NRA, more money will be willingly allocated for mental health services, or funds for agencies involved in controlling gun sales will be forthcoming without pressure.

      But I do have faith in the power of outraged people clearly stating that they will do whatever is necessary to get those who could assert responsibility–but don’t exercise it–out of office. And when they begin boycotting products produced by companies who profit by exploiting our fascination with violence,things might change.

      So, the bottom line is I’m feeling a bit more confident that things will change, but I’m not sure by how much.

      Take Care,

  3. Mary Ann Barton

    Thank you so much for this article, Stan. I, too, thought about the children who are being killed all over the world, so I wrote this poem:

    With Prayers for the World’s Children

    Dear children of Newtown, you there, in Connecticut,

    May you rest tonight in a safe bed.

    May you eat dinner cooked in the holy kitchen of love.

    May you play with a dog you hold dear,

    Or a cat with whiskers that spring up from her muzzle

    Like so many fountains of kisses.

    May your mom or dad or grandma pick you up from school;

    May you feel held in their arms like a prayer;

    May you be safe, with all our prayers

    For the world’s children.

    ~ Mary Ann Barton

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you for your kind words Mary Ann. And it’s a wonderful poem!
      Take care,

      • Mary Ann Barton

        Thanks, Stan. I was glad that the dog and cat showed up in the poem, since pets can be so comforting to children (and adults).

  4. Michael Brant

    I’m sorry to say, but my reaction to the latest shootings, beside being appalled, is anger. And disgust. That we can’t get guns under control in this country. Disaster after disaster, all over the country, but each fades away, until the next episode a week or two later. How could it be more obvious that the minimal controls we now have make deadly firepower available to virtually any upset or unbalanced person (without a felony record) – millions and millions of Columbines waiting to happen. I think the pundits have it right this time – it IS the gun lobby and the U.S. culture of violence and rugged individualism that keeps this menace on the loose. What courage it would take to turn this peril around, instead of just mourning the next calamity.

    • Stan Goldberg

      You’re absolutely right Michael. When I travel to various countries with significantly lower murder rates and restrictive gun ownership, they just can’t understand why we haven’t done anything to curb our violence. Then I go into a long explanation about the relationship between money and power, and I can see that I’ve lost them.

      I wish I was more optimistic about the possibility of gun controls approaching minimal levels of sanity, but I’m not. It’s difficult reasoning with someone who believes the second amendment trumps the lives of children.

      • Michael Brant

        Well said, Stan.

  5. Luke Vorstermans

    A news commentator said, “This senseless slaughter of innocent children crosses a line…(We) have to do something about our obsession with guns….”

    Hmmm… at what age is it acceptable to kill? Of course it is the innocence of children — far removed from the insanity of the adult world — that makes this situation so grievious, as in the other scenarios such as Syria, etc.

    The senselessness of our violent culture, highly promoted — and accepted — on tv, the internet, sports, movies, etc. every once in a while comes close to home. We wake up for a moment, feel something, and then go back to sleep.

    Violence seems so entrenched in our cultural DNA even though we see the folly of our thinking when a slaughter like Sandy Hook fills our screens.

    I have no solution to offer… only my compassion for those who are now paying the price.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Amen Luke. I can’t add anything else to your compelling words.

  6. Kate Loving Shenk

    What you wrote about the hundreds of children dying in Syria, and may I add, Palastine, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea and every war since the beginning of time–is a statement I take to my heart. However these deaths occur, it simply is unfathomable. Thank you.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you kate. I agree with you completely. I think as along as people think in terms of “us” and “them,” there will always be a discrepancy between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” deaths.


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