Welcome to the Real World

A photo a week throughout 2019: our family, just as we are. 9/52

The weirdest part about our shelter in place experience was returning home. We walked through the front door and, surprise! Life plodded on with startling familiarity. I cleared the counters and figured out a dinner plan, despite the many other things on my mind.

My husband flipped on the news so we could maybe find out more details of the situation. We had already learned from online sources what was first said to be an active shooter situation was an unlawful/accidental discharge, and it was at the other end of the mall from where we were. By God’s mercy, there was no rampage going on down the way, but we didn’t know that until well beyond our departure from the mall. I was grateful no one was hurt, but don’t know if it was terribly comforting to know it was “just an accidental discharge” in a public place full of families. Public gun situations are becoming more commonplace (it boggles my mind to say so), but we frequent public places so rarely, I honestly never expected to encounter something remotely like this in my lifetime.

I bustled in the kitchen, trying to focus on the task at hand when my husband stopped in to let me know that at least one of the kids was in and out of weeping and asking some hard questions about what we had experienced as the evening settled in. He often leaves the more involved communication to me, since I rarely have any shortage of words. He’s the best choice for all-consuming, life-giving hugs, which he doles out freely to all of us. We agreed he would handle getting our toddler to sleep at bedtime and I would sit with the bigger kids gathered around to help them talk through the experience and answer all the questions I could. I prayed for wisdom about what to say.

The kids have been taking classes twice a week at a nearby school. It is technically a public school but set up to serve homeschool families with support, oversight, and a bunch of awesome classes we just have to show up for (less work for mama). It’s the most “school-like” environment my kids have been in since our oldest entered kindergarten. They have done earthquake, fire, and shelter in place drills on campus, but none of them have ever connected the dots as to why the drills were necessary, or really, how they are all different from each other. I’m not sorry I haven’t splashed all the news stories before them prior to this experience. They range in age from 3 to 12 and one of us parents is nearly always with them even at school, so I haven’t felt the need to fill their heads with fears about what could happen in a social situation gone sideways. I’m sure they’ve seen snippets of new stories here and there. We’ve never intentionally tried to hide the real world from them, we simply haven’t brought the tragic things close in an effort to protect their sense of wonder and childlikeness in these precious years.

As a hyper-aware child myself, I was very aware of any an all dangers that could ever befall me and spent a good portion of my childhood worrying about all of the above–well beyond what would be seen as normal. I never slept with my bedroom window open (not even one time) because I was certain if I did, someone would come through it to kidnap me. Before I was ten years old, I knew to be aware of where exits were in public places, always studied the faces and body language of strangers to see if they might be a threat, and took every precaution in every situation I could to avoid any perceived danger. It has taken me years of painstaking heart-work and prayer to untangle irrational fear from my everyday life. Situational awareness is a needed skill, but having lived the life I have and discovering the crippling effects of rampant, unchecked fear, I’ve grown to believe childhood is a fleeting time that can and should be protected whenever possible. I realize many children are not given this opportunity, which grieves my mama-heart, but in no way deters me from wanting to do what I can for my children and the ones in my sphere of influence to preserve their innocence as long as I can. I invest deeply at home precisely because I want to guard these years of wonder and delight for as long as I can.

The kids gathered after their bedtime routines and we talked for a long time. I started by asking them if there was anything they wanted to talk about or ask regarding the experience. In turn, they each chattered out what they remembered hearing and seeing, what frightened them, what they didn’t understand, and tossed out their questions.

“Do lots of people shoot up malls and public places?” came one of them.

I wanted to be careful with that one because the answer is hard to acknowledge. “It does happen, and it can happen anywhere,” I replied truthfully. I mentioned that it is not something I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime, and they may never again either, but none of us know what will happen in the future.

“Do you remember how during the whole experience, we didn’t know much about what was going on, right?” I said. Sudden inspiration came to slip in some possibly useful lessons.

“One important thing to do in an emergency is to remain calm. If you’re not calm, you won’t be able to take in the clues around you about what is going on, and you won’t be able to make thoughtful decisions about your next steps.”

This turned our conversation to a stretch about how to respond in different kinds of emergencies. I explained how a shelter in place is different from a fire. In one, you stay-put and out of sight. In the other, you get out of the building without hesitation and go to the designated meeting spot. In both, you remain calm and try to collect clues about what is going on as you make decisions regarding what you need to do in order to be safe.

We talked about how troubled people sometimes make choices to hurt others, but that there are also lots of people who want to help others, even in the midst of dangerous situations. We talked about what heroes really look like (as opposed to the Marvel variety), and why “bad guys” aren’t quite as simple as they are portrayed to be in movies.

There is a saying in our family that gets tossed around, mostly for the laughs, because it was first tossed out in a family conversation innocently by our spunky middle child. It has become a well-timed quip, heavily laced with sarcasm, and always cracks us up. Anytime someone complains about having to do a chore or notices weirdness out in the world, someone pipes up with the phrase, “Welcome to the real world!” Sadly, this shelter-in-place experience was a more serious introduction to the “real” world. I’m not sorry it happened, but I do wish I would have walked my kids through some of the particulars of handling an emergency of this nature before this situation happened without warning. More than a month later, my sensitive girl continues to struggle with anxiety, bad dreams, and unfounded worry about all kinds of things since, and she is the one I feel would have possibly handled it all a little better with some information up front. I don’t know for sure if it would have changed how she experienced this, but I find she is typically really coachable ahead of other potentially uncomfortable or stressful things.

I share all of this because I know so many mamas who, just like me, don’t want their children to have to know about the more tragic side of the human experience any earlier than necessary. How can we talk about these things with preschoolers and early grade-schoolers? I’m fumbling through that myself.

I don’t have tidy answers to offer, but I do think it helps to thoughtfully explain various types of emergencies and possible courses of action. We had previously talked about fire safety and evacuation, but never shelter in place drills (not more than a passing comment anyway), and I am giving some deep thought to what else we may need to discuss on the sooner side just so the hard lessons don’t have to show up in moments mixed up with confusion, panic, and hysteria.

More than anything, I want my children to know whatever they need to know without fear set loose to rule their lives. I’m grateful no one was hurt. I’m grateful we have all learned from the experience. And I’m grateful for the perspective shift it has given me to more conscientiously prepare even my younger children for unexpected situations they may encounter in the future.

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1541. new stroller, 1542. misc. baby items order, 1543. anticipation, 1544. precious movement, 1545. familiar songs streaming through a tiny speaker, 1546. teamwork, 1547. episodes done, 1548. slow roll into a new season, 1549. conversations, 1550. quiet

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Hello
July 23, 2013
Laying Low
April 16, 2015
1 Comment
  • Reply
    Tina Welch
    April 3, 2019 at 12:51 am

    Dear Emily and Clan:
    I think that you handled everything that resulted from having been through that “scary” experience very well. There is no way to prepare for any and every eventuality. However, it is so wise to advise them to remain calm to be able to think clearly about what is happening and what you need to do.
    I love the way you write! Excellent!

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