No Words (A Response to the Connecticut School Shooting)

I just saw this tragic story on the news and this quote from a parent struck me:

There’s no words that I could come up with that would even come close to describing the sheer terror of hearing that your son is in a place… where there’s been violence.

Photo credit: Adrees Latif, Reuters
Photo credit: Adrees Latif, Reuters

President Obama attempted to offer some words of his own, describing the school shooting in Connecticut:

They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own… Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children.

20 kids dead. Several teachers who had dedicated their lives to educating these little ones, to giving them hope for a future — also dead. All of that taken away.

As a writer, I want to say something. But as a parent, I cannot.

I believe language has power and impact, that it can be a salve to our wounds. But not today. Today, I have no words.

If I did, they might be “awful” or “unimaginable” — even “appalling.” But none of those seems to capture the intensity, the pain, of what has transpired today. None seems appropriate.

So today I am reminded that sometimes no words are in order.

When tragedy strikes, we want to have the right words to say, because something really ought to be said. We are uncomfortable with the silence and fear our lack of words will communicate indifference.

But we forget that sometimes silence can be louder than our strongest voice.

At times like this, the Jewish custom of Shiva seems to offer the most comfort. Instead of saying something, perhaps the most appropriate thing to do is to simply sit with the suffering. To not say but show we are with those in mourning.

Maybe it’s a prayer offered or a candle lit, even a hand on the knee or a person’s presence in a room. At our times of greatest despair, we don’t need words of consolation or an explanation of what “God’s plan” is in all of this mess. We just don’t want to feel alone.

Tragedy has a devious way of isolating those in suffering, making them feel they have to bear this burden alone.

The best way we can love those who have lost so much is to show them that they are not on their own. That we are, indeed, with them. I don’t know how we do that virtually for strangers, from thousands of miles away, but it’s worth trying to figure out.

After all, it’s one thing to say, “Tomorrow’s another day.” It’s quite another to sit through the darkness of night and wait for daybreak together. 

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.
—Henri Nouwen