Surviving Terror and Grief

My two daughters are graduates of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – Class of 2008 and Class of 2012. As a result, the news surrounding the terrible shooting there a few weeks ago has had a resonance for me even beyond the shock, sadness, fear, and anger experienced by all of us each time such an event occurs.

Among the many remarkable stories emerging in the aftermath of this tragedy is the response of the students. Many of these young men and women are channeling their grief into action and leadership, with a resolve and poise so striking as to cause some to question whether they are “really” high school students at all. Rather than engage in such criticism, however, it is worth discussing how this could have developed, and how we can nurture and support those in our own lives so that they can survive whatever hardships and tragedies they might face.

The Douglas students leading the charge come from diverse backgrounds with regard to ethnicity and gender, but they share the experiences of a well-rounded education. These are students who have taken classes in government and writing, who have participated in activities including drama, debate, and journalism, and who have had the backing of teachers who challenge, support, and genuinely care about them. And behind the scenes, there is a community of parents who, while dealing with their own pain, are putting their own fears aside enough to allow their teenage children to travel, take risks, and face down criticisms and even threats.

One of the great challenges, and perhaps the most important goal, of raising children is nurturing them so that they can become individuals who can cope on their own. So often, we witness parents who go to extreme lengths to prevent their children from experiencing disappointment or hurt. And while the Douglas students are speaking so eloquently and loudly that they feel compelled and ready to lead, admiration is also due to their parents whose love and support have provided the foundation for their strength. In the past few weeks I have spoken with friends who are part of the Parkland and Coral Springs community, and the love and support they are providing is almost limitless.

So, what lessons can we take away from these horrible events? First, it is important to recognize that everyone grieves in his or her own way. Some find reserves of strength and channel these into public action, while others grieve more quietly and privately. All of these survivors are forever changed. Well after the media attention has moved on, they will continue to need care from professionals, loved ones, and the community small and large. Second, the task of parents and schools is to provide for children an environment in which they can grow and develop into strong individuals. Provide a foundation, and let them use it. Let them lead when they feel ready, while always being available when needed. We all hope that such a tragedy will never happen again. But if it does, this community has shown us that perhaps something good can come as a result.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist