Every Bullet Holds an Epitaph:  Guns and Children

By Florence Rosiello, PhD

     Have you heard that there is a new type of backpack for children and it’s made to withstand the impact of bullets?  And, I recently read there are kid-sized shellproof breastplates that are also being manufactured.  So, it won’t just be the child’s back that is protected from bullets; it’ll also be their chests.  This armor, so to speak, makes it safer for children and they can wear them in classrooms or during recess, and this gear will protect them, hopefully, from semi-automatic weapons.

    I’m not sure if this equipment was popular or available prior to the elementary school shootings, maybe it was, but it wasn’t something I knew about.  I’d bet a few of the parents who had other children in that school, those classrooms that the semi-automatic didn’t visit, well, I’d bet a few of them found out about these protective shields and bought them for their remaining children.  Now, from what I understand regarding that Connecticut elementary school murder, the children who were in the other classrooms, euphemistically called the survivors, had to exit the school, by walking past or bypassing the shot-up classroom.  They were given instructions on how to leave the crime scene:  single file, eyes closed, and they had to place their hand on the shoulder of the child in front of them.  So, blindly, they got to exist the building and I assume they left with the freshly implanted emotional images and sounds, as well as the fear-fantasy of where these dead children are headed, next.

      What happens to children who survive what a semi-automatic has emotionally created?  I heard of one family who had 2 boys, one murdered in the classroom, and his surviving brother, who was a in another classroom.  I assume this other child probably heard bullets, and accompanying sounds and shrieks from those who were being shot down.

     So, just how does a child, how does that bother, just 2 years older than his slain brother…how does the child left behind grieve, mourn, and cope with life after such a situation?

     Children are not very good at mourning or grieving.  They don’t have the developmental skills to really understand, to produce, or to process grief the ways adults do.  Adults are capable of abstract thinking, so we can grieve the loss of a child in a variety of ways, such as recalling memories or reliving special moments, or creating new hopeful thoughts, or rationalizations, or just relying on past experience and wisdom of a life lived until adulthood.  Kids don’t have that option, particularly the young ones.  They see the world as good or bad, right or wrong, black hat or white hat.  They think and therefore feel and cope with their inexperienced lives in a very emotionally and cognitively concrete way.  This is actually a pretty good thing, because the complexities of the outside world, the world beyond the nuclear family, presents previously unknown awareness’s; and the unknown, or the child’s fear-fantasy of the unknown, is often more frightening than what is actual. 

     When I was little, I remember seeing a sock sticking out from under my bed.  Well, in my mind, this sock morphed into a dark monster that was just waiting for some kid like me, to devour.  Consequently, while I was lying in my dark bedroom trying to sleep, I just knew he was waiting to grab my leg and pull me into that ‘another dimension’ hole in wall.  This was the same hole in the wall that I had just seen watching Twilight Zone.  In this episode, a little girl, innocently playing in her bedroom, sees her dog run into this sort of mushy bedroom wall.  She doesn’t know this wall is really an opening that leads to another world or dimension, as Rod Sterling would call it.  Of course, she runs after her dog, goes through the mushy wall and spends the entire Twilight Zone episode looking for the dog in this other dimension.  Time keeps ticking away and we, the audience, know the mushy wall is slowly closing up and if she doesn’t get out of this other dimension soon, she and this hyperactive dog are going to be walled-up and stuck somewhere by Rod Sterling. 

     I kept this fear of being devoured by the sock under the bed to myself because if I told my parents, there’d be a weird look, then a comforting comment, and a dismissal that all this was in my mind.  So, naturally, I did tell my mother and she did try to comfort me, and then she dismissed it/me and most likely, she thought the fear of the Sock-Monster-Under-The-Bed was put to rest, and I wasn’t sure which one of us, my mother or me, was more naïve.

     Actually, what did happen in confessing the Sock-Monster Story to my mother and seeing her look weird at me, I figured it would be best, in the future, to avoid the ‘what’s wrong with you look,’ and I kept the monster stuff to myself.  In other words, I concretely interpreted that I needed to act like there were absolutely no Sock Monsters, and I kept my suspicions, my growing anxiety, and my increasingly spooky nightmares, as well as my fear-fantasies – all to myself.

     Adults sometimes feel that children are resilient, that they bounce back or recover from difficult situations somewhat quickly.  They can think that because the child might not look upset or denies being upset.  Some children experience a sense of shame when they’re upset, perhaps because people are known to say things like, ‘oh, stop crying,’ or ‘cry-baby,’ and so they hide or deny their feelings, sometimes even to themselves.  But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s more that many children are developmentally unable to articulate complex feelings, or they are unable to identify what they feel.  This is a good example of why children’s movies used to show the good guys wearing white hats and the bad guys, not. 

     So, there is at least one child, the one whose brother was shot by the semi-automatic, who most likely has been left with the auditory memory, as well as his own created fear-fantasy image of what happened in his brother’s classroom.  I hope that horror has somewhat faded in his daily consciousness and to whatever degree, been unknowingly relegated to his unconscious.  But, the unconscious isn’t specific in what gets claimed as un-remembered; and, the unconscious takes away just as much of us as it wants or as we unconsciously let it.  It’s like when we use Crazy Glue to bond things together that have broken.  Somehow or another, Crazy Glue also glues your fingers together, or sticks to the table, or sticks to your clothes.  Crazy Glue doesn’t care what it gets stuck to or claims as it’s own or what it slimes onto and messes up.  Cray Glue is just trying to fix something that has shattered.  This is what the unconscious does, it Crazy Glues memories, emotions, all kinds of things from the conscious and adheres it to the unconscious.  We get to grow up just a little easier because the unconscious can, sometimes, relieve our mind of childhood miseries.  However, a major traumatic event is stickier than most memories and the Crazy Glue of the unconscious isn’t strong enough to take it all away from conscious memory.

     The surviving children from that massacre didn’t need to see the chaos and death in the classroom; they didn’t need to see their dead friends or siblings.  This would have been a too gruesome visual that might have adhered itself forever in the child’s conscious mind, choking the roots a developing sense of self and constricting aspects of self that should have been left untouched, like ‘innocence.’  

     The fact that these children were instructed by their teachers to close their eyes, well, this was the right move to my way of thinking.  It protected them from an unbearable visual exposure.  Luckily, these children were given the lesser evil; the lesser evil being the child’s fear-fantasy, i.e., their own imagination of what the event looked like.  *Fantasy can sometimes be more functional than reality. 

     An additional issue regarding fear-fantasies is they can often find refuge in the mind as a real memory and as time and life go on, we sometimes can’t decipher if our memory is correct or if we just made it up.  Still, be it real or not, a memory finds a place for itself; either within the conscious or unconscious mind and memories always *influences our sense of selfMemories and the emotions within memories collide into who we become, they help make us into us.  Perhaps this surviving brother will be faced with some of these issues, or not; but at the very least, he will struggle to manage grief at a too young and too vulnerable age.

     Yet another concern for this lone brother, this child (or children) left behind by a murderer, is his own struggle in managing grief that is environmentally co-mingled with parents in mourning.  On one hand, mourning/grieving with others can create a feeling of belonging and familial sameness.  Sometimes, though, families don’t come together, instead, they fall apart.  In such cases, parents might unconsconsciously fear losing the remaining child and emotionally withdraw as protection from this fear-fantasy.  

     How does the surviving child emotionally shift from having a brother and the next day, being an only child?  How does the family reconfigure when a child is replaced by an emotion-laden black hole?  *What does the dinner table look like hosting a dead child’s empty chair?

     The surviving child no longer knows his own world.  His brother is gone; his parents are lost to mourning; he probably feels guilty in needing parents who are grieving; perhaps anxious and jealous that the parents might have cared more for the dead child; or, guilty he is the survivor and his sibling was not.   

*     There are times when some survivors’ feel as thought they have become the aftermath of their own life. 

     Years ago, I began treating a patient who’s older brother had been shot and killed.  My patient was in his early teens and his brother was soon to graduate high school when he was shot. The parents, who were not very emotionally open by nature, seemed to isolate themselves even more in their private grieving.  My patient thought his parents were never able to fee themselves of grief.  It consumed them and in their obsessive grief, they seemed to have forgotten they had a second son.  My patient told me that he felt as though he raised himself.  What is intriguing is he did not tell his school friends that his brother died.  He didn’t want them to feel sorry for him.  It was as though he was shamed by his brother’s murder and feared his friends would reject him because, now, there was something wrong or bad about being in his company.  As though his very presence, his physical existence could be dangerous or damaging to people he cared about.  

     He kept these feeling to himself until his concealed emotions morphed into a constant state of isolation and depression, and concurrently, he began to separate himself from his own feelings through dissociation.  The loss of his brother and the residual loss of his parents’ attention, reinforced that he could only trust that people were temporary.  His sense of safety and constancy in the world had been destroyed.  His environment became a nexus of anticipated loss and, essentially, he only trusted that he could not trust.

     How, then, was he able to stay in psychotherapy and rely or trust in a therapeutic relationship?  Why wasn’t therapy as well as his therapist, just temporary?  There are many reasons for this, but one reason could be he felt safe knowing sessions are 50 minutes, they always end on time, and when the time is up, he gets to return to his emotionally isolated world.  I wonder, in hindsight, if he also felt a sense of kinship between his isolation and my own vulnerability to childhood abandonment.  Perhaps he unconsciously felt a need to take care of my vulnerability, and in such an unconscious wish, he may have felt he was making up for not taking care of his brother. 

     In my work with this patient, he was alternating snippy, dismissive, or downright hostile in sessions.  This may have been an unconscious enactment to see if I would leave him, or, perhaps worse, that I might stay.  Or maybe an unconscious wish that he could eliminate me and continue to live out his legacy of solitude. What was constant throughout our work was his frequent lapse into loud wailing sobs lamenting that he deeply missed his brother.

     Over time these reactions seemed to mutate and sessions became more emotionally engaging and he spoke more and more about his day-to-day life, and the people who he felt temporarily moved through it.  His relationships at work and at successive jobs, slowly improved, though every so often he’d get himself fired because of some angry outburst, usually at his boss or at any authority/parental figure.  But still, he continued to find jobs and to make more money and to gingerly accept a few friendships. 

     As his life on the outside got better, my life in the consulting room with him was taking a nosedive or more aptly put, my nose was metaphorically being punched.  He was increasingly angry with me.  At times, I couldn’t seem to say or do anything right.  If I unintentionally interrupted him, he’d glare at me as if to say I should know better, but his glare would last the rest of the session and he often wouldn’t resume his narrative.  He just sat silent, which is exactly what he did after his brother died. 

     Unconsciously, he needed more and more control of the relationship feeling our consistency was threatening to his emotional isolation.  His hostility increased and I felt pushed to step on hidden grenades so he’d have something to glare about.  Nothing seem to soften him, no interpretations, empathies, silence, talking about anything that might sooth him – nothing appeared to work, which to my way of thinking, meant something was developing in our work.  Relationships are not static; they’re always evolving, so why did he need to present such a vicious defense?  We don’t develop defenses unless we have something we want to protect and usually the intensity of the defense equals the intensity of what is protected.

     And then came the day, right before going to my office, I’d had an argument with my then husband.  My first patient of the day came in and was unusually emotional, as well as critical and cranky.  So, let’s recap here, 1) an argument with my soon-to-be ex-husband, 6:00 am; 2) 50 minutes with a cranky first patient of the day, 7:00 am to 8:00 am; and, 3) my 2nd patient, better known as Mr. Don’t-Interrupt-Me, 8:00 am to 9:00 am.  The first moment this session began, he was verbally ripping me apart using every curse word imaginable; every single lousy curse word, I mean. 

     It must have been 3 strikes and you’re out, because I’d had it, and as I said, it was only 8:00am.  I was so angry hearing him curse me and so fed up with his ongoing impenetrable hostilities for what felt like years (which is actually was).  When to my horror and shock, I somehow catapulted myself up and out of the chair and wound up with my nose almost touching his, and I shouted, “Shut the hell up!”  Then, I stormed out of my office and slammed the door behind me. 

      Ok, so there I am, standing in my Waiting Room with the growing awareness that I’ve slammed my own the door and left him inside my office, and me, outside.  So, I stormed back into my office and said, “Now you get out”…as though it was now his turn to get out of my office.  He shot a look as he slowly stood up and more slowly walked past me and said, “What took you so long?”  I wonder if his anger somehow enlivened him and when I blew my top, I too, met his aliveness.  Unlike his brother and his grieving parents, my yelling seemed to mean that I knew he was alive and in the room.  On the following day, he showed up for his session and talked about being afraid he was progressing in therapy and feared getting better, which to him meant, he would have to leave treatment and therefore, me. 

     With his gift of grief on a platter, I mulled his statement of equating his notion of progress in therapy meant having it terminated.  Was it written in stone, somewhere, that patients have to leave therapy?  Probably.  But, how do we know if a therapy is ever ended at the right time?   I was still in the mode of mulling, when I heard him say that I was his only family.  His longest relationship was the therapeutic relationship.  I hadn’t died even though he was in my presence, which meant he was not as dangerous to be with as he had always thought.  Many therapists may disagree with my decision to never end his treatment, but disagreements are the spice of life and the origin of change, and so, I said he could stay as long as long as he wanted.  It was his choice if and when or never. 

     At long last, he is in a relationship with a woman whom he loves and who loves him.  He is has a good job and a few friends who are now long-term, and has remained in treatment for over 30 years.  I believe he survived his history.

     Will the survivors of the Connecticut school massacre, those children left behind by the semi-automatic; will they survive their history?  Some will most likely struggle with unwanted and intrusive memories well into adulthood and a heightened fear of loosing other family members or friends.  While I can image what it feels like to fear losing a loved one, I know full well ‘imaging’ is nothing compared to the actual experience.  Many of us go through life without traumatic memory of a semi-automatic surreptitiously stealing someone we love.

     I’ve heard the quote “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  This is a weirdly humanizing statement meaning guns are innocent of killing people.  If a gun is humanized as innocent, then let’s really humanize it provide a proper name:  Semi (first name) and Automatic (last name), and let’s call his/her sidekick, Single G. Shot.   

Every bullet holds an epitaph – and always will.