Lessons from Tragedy: Boston Marathon

By Kristen Berthiaume, Phd:

The picture from yesterday’s explosions during the Boston Marathon seems pretty bleak. The dreams of prime, dedicated athletes thwarted – in some cases just a few feet from the finish line. Many didn’t complete the course and may never get another chance. Lives were ended, destroyed, or forever changed. Our sense of security further was eroded (as if we haven’t had enough of that already in the past year). If your kids have been watching the news coverage, they may be feeling pretty angry and confused. How could this happen? Who’s responsible? Why would someone do this? These are questions we adults have no answers for now and, even when we have them, they may not make sense. So, what can we give our kids in absence of a logical explanation?

First, you can give comfort and reassurance. This was an isolated incident. There is no plot to set off bombs at school field days or Saturday soccer games. Your child is safe. You will do everything in your power to keep her that way. If you need more ideas for talking to your child about what happened, try this related article: Helping Your Child Deal with a Tragedy.

Once you’ve dealt with the initial fears the bombing caused, think about going further to help your child (and yourself) process all of this. You may have seen this picture circulating on Facebook but I wanted to share it in case you haven’t.

This is just one of the dozens of lessons Mr. Rogers left us with in his 30+ years of teaching and entertaining children: Resiliency. If you’re going to let your kids watch video from the marathon, consider showing examples of helpers and pointing out the bravery evident in people running toward the blasts to assist. Many of these helpers were not “heroes” in the traditional sense. They weren’t police officers, firefighters, nurses, or doctors (although these people have certainly played a vital part). Many were ordinary folks – curious spectators, random passersby, other runners, moms, dads, bankers, teachers, maintenance workers. They didn’t respond to the explosions because it was their job or because they had some superpower that gave them the courage and strength to do so. They helped because they saw suffering and wanted to make it better. Explain to your kids that you don’t have to be in a certain position, to have a particular job, or to be an expert in something in order to help when something terrible happens. You just have to keep in mind that we are all humans and that it is our job to take care of each other. You may have to let down your guard a bit and do things you’re not totally comfortable with but if you can get past your own anxiety, you might be able to make a positive impact. If you want some specific examples of helpers to share with your kids, check out this link from Business Insider.  There are, no doubt, countless more stories like these.

Focusing on the helpers reminds us all that, although there is certainly evil in the world, there is also much good. Seeing people put their lives at risk to help others flies in the face of the “every man for himself” world view we develop if we focus on the worst part of humanity. Learning that people are opening their homes and restaurants to total strangers, and giving sacrificially of their time and money, even of their own blood, to help others they may never see again – this is a very powerful lesson for our children. Life is not better when we get whatever we can before someone else does. Our goal should not be to wish bad things on others so that we might avoid having them happen to us. Instead, we become stronger and more fulfilled when we learn to work with and care for each other in order to get through and make sense out of very dark situations.

You will help your child develop resiliency by talking about events like what happened at the marathon and focusing on those who put themselves in danger to make a difference. Highlight the helpers. Think with your child about scary times in his life – being trapped in an elevator, the first day of school, a car accident – where someone helped and on any good things that may have come out of the experience. “Remember when the usher at the movies brought you to find us in the crowded lobby? She was a helper. Because of that scary thing happening, we always remember to designate a meeting spot in case we get separated in a busy place.” Explain that there is no way to prevent every bad thing from happening in your child’s life but that he will get through most challenges just fine. Even better, there will often be opportunities to grow from those experiences. The truth is, he may not develop important life coping skills unless he first faces a few obstacles. For example, remind him that if his 2nd grade best friend hadn’t started rejecting him every day on the playground, he might never have started playing with his kinder, more inclusive best friend of four years.

When bad things happen to good people (or, even to “good enough” people), giving up is always an option. There will be people injured or traumatized by yesterday’s events who stop running, stop dreaming, and stop trusting. This is a perfectly understandable reaction. Maybe even the most logical. After all, they did nothing to deserve what they went through and there was no way they could have prevented it. Having no control can leave us feeling helpless and like there’s no point in trying. But, I’m willing to bet that many, if not most, of the runners will one day complete another marathon. Some will do so after months of physical therapy, some through the help of prosthetics. Some will run slower than they did yesterday and many will feel a sense of terror as they near the finish line. The point is – what happened yesterday will not stop these people from continuing to achieve, no matter what new obstacles they face. This is the very definition of resiliency and something our children will benefit immeasurably from understanding.

The strongest people aren’t those who’ve never had bad things happen to them (is this even possible, anyway?). The strongest people are those who have suffered something – tragedies, challenges, life-changing events – and come through it having found some new goal or purpose. This isn’t the same as saying that “everything happens for a reason” because, honestly, that’s an overly simplistic way of explaining what occurred at the marathon and may even seem like victim-blaming to some. Rather, we become resilient when we are tested and we use the experience to get better – physically, emotionally, mentally. Look for the successes in the wake of this tragedy – some may come as early as today and others not for several years. Talk about these stories with your children, highlighting the challenges the individuals have overcome and how they have gotten stronger as a result. Be listening for what your family can do to help those affected by this and similar tragedies. Consider giving money to the Red Cross to help with medical expenses. Send letters, cards, and pictures to Boston area hospitals to lift the spirits of those injured. Donate blood and let your child watch (if he can handle that). Say prayers, send thoughts, provide support. Expand your child’s definition of the word “neighbor” to include those in Boston 1,200 miles away – Mr. Rogers certainly did.

If you choose to talk with your kids about the terrible events at the Boston Marathon, focus not on those who did the hurting. How can such sickness really be explained?  Focus, instead, on those doing the helping.

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