A recent article in the BBC News discussed the complex subject of murder-suicide and the effect it has on the parents. The parents often find themselves in the spotlight. When a mass killing occurs, media speculation turns to the assailant’s upbringing.
As Andrew Solomon, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University says, “There is a tendency to immediately blame the parents.”
He adds, “It’s a terrible trauma and a terrible loss for the parent who not only loses their child but also their image of their child.”
Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine attackers, says “It’s taken me years to accept my son’s legacy. The cruelty that defined the end of his life showed me he was a completely different person to the one I knew.”
Her son Dylan and an accomplice killed 12 students and 1 teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 before killing themselves. They had accumulated enough explosives to blow up the entire school of 2000 students.
There were accusations and there were questions. Sue felt the barrage. “How could you not know? What kind of mother are you?”
Six months after the killings Sue discovered Dylan had been feeling suicidal for 2 years.
Most parents accept their role as carer and endeavour to provide the physical and emotional support their children need. Sue acknowledged her love for Dylan. She said, “He was my son and knowing him did enrich my life and he brought joy to me when he was alive.”
From an early age, children learn the art of secrecy. They discover that withholding information can be to their advantage. For example, when a parent has lost control and is throwing accusations about, it is sensible to adopt the submissive/silent look.
Author Michelle Dean says, “Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight.” But paying attention can be difficult for busy parents who have many claims on their time. Sometimes it’s the weariness of work that shuts us down to the unspoken questions and the hidden cries for help.
Simone Weil reminds us, “Attention is the rarest form of generosity.”
When our children become teenagers there is often a clash of ideologies as they wrestle with identity issues. They no longer see their parents as the source of all wisdom and look for inspiration and guidance elsewhere. They assume their parents are out of touch and wouldn’t understand what they are going through. They look to resolve issues and conflicts in their own way.
As Sue Klebold says, “We cannot know or control everything our loved ones think or feel.”
Every caring parent asks themselves, “To what extent am I complicit in my child’s actions?” Or to put it another way, “Is my inattention or inaction a reason to feel guilty?”
When our son Adam took his life it was difficult not to feel that we had let him down; that we had failed in our ‘duty of care; that we hadn’t been paying attention; that we didn’t know the extent of his brokenness; that we had allowed emotional barriers to come between us and hadn’t done anything about them.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal says, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” What I believe she is saying is that we need to focus on what is important. We need to know and acknowledge the things that are a priority. We need to give ourselves unreservedly to that which has captured our heart and mind.
We could see that Adam was struggling. We could see the confusion caused by a conflicted mind. We could see, in part, how his life was unravelling. We could see. We were paying attention. But we weren’t giving it our full attention. We were still trying to balance his needs with our needs, a situation that will inevitably bring conflict and compromise.
Like many other parents, we live with the trauma of ‘that day,’ the day that changed everything. We know the futility in thinking we can re-write the past or undo the pain. We understand that sometimes our caring isn’t enough.
Even so, we acknowledge the importance of caring for ourselves, the giving and receiving of forgiveness, and loving those who share the sadness of loss.