I’ve spoken all over the world since my six-year-old son's murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School alongside nineteen of his classmates and six educators in one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history. Shortly after his death, I decided to be part of the solution to the issues that we're seeing in our society—and that also caused the tragedy. I became an advocate for social and emotional learning that teaches children how to manage their emotions, feel connected, and have healthy relationships.
As a parent of a murdered child, there is a tremendous amount to overcome. First, you face the reality that your child was taken in a violent manner and their last experience was most likely terrifying. Then, there is the natural order of things—your child isn't supposed to die before you! You must address your family's trauma and a life that is forever changed. Through it all, there is the ensuing chaos in the community impacted by the event. I am still navigating all of this on a daily basis.
I'm usually introduced before my talks with, "I'd like to introduce Scarlett Lewis. Scarlett lost her six-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, during the tragedy in Sandy Hook."
I am always acutely aware of the word "lost." In my life preceding the tragedy, I would have an errant thought that I might forget my son in the grocery cart while loading the bags into the car. My mind would play out the scenario where I would end up in jail with the headline in the local paper reading, "Mother loses child while grocery shopping," followed by a black and white picture of my son with his new foster family.
However, I didn't “lose” my child on December 14, 2012, any more than a parent whose child dies from disease, suicide, or other means. We loved and cared for our children. We were appropriately vigilant. We took our jobs are parents seriously! Jesse was where he was supposed to be by law (at school), for gosh sakes.
If we can't stand to hear the truth, how are we going to be a part of the solution?
Parents rarely describe the circumstances of their children's death as a '”loss.” In fact, I describe Jesse’s death specifically as a ”murder.” Both of my parents cringe at the word. In fact, they both suggested separately (they are divorced) that I use another word, saying, "That word is so offensive and upsetting, maybe use another word so that your audience won't be so taken aback?" But, as I explained, murder is offensive and upsetting! Isn't it important to be present in reality, even if it's uncomfortable? If we can't stand to hear the truth, how are we going to be a part of the solution?
We grow as human beings through discomfort, pain, and suffering. These are the hard-hitting experiences that shape and mold us. If we have the courage to accept our reality, and not resist or avoid, we can become transformed and help others. This post-traumatic growth enables us to find strength we never knew we had, fortifies relationships, gives a new perspective, and deepens our spirituality. I even found a new purpose in life.
If we have the courage to accept our reality, and not resist or avoid, we can become transformed and help others.
We want to avoid being uncomfortable and, of course, do everything in our power to keep our children from experiencing pain. However, it is these exact occurrences that have the potential to chart our children's course for growth and compassion.
So if using the word "murder" is jarring and uncomfortable to those who hear it, perhaps there will be more individuals who will want to be part of the solution to the anger and violence that we are experiencing in our society. I don't want people to forget the inconvenient truth that this happens in our country on a daily basis. Every day. By whatever means.
And I don't want anyone to forget about Jesse. He isn't “lost.” He was murdered.
Scarlett Lewis is founder of The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a non-profit organization teaching others to choose love, created in honor of her son, Jesse, victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy. She created the Choose Love Enrichment Program, a free, comprehensive SEL program that empowers educators and their students to choose love for themselves and others. While we can't always choose what happens to us, we can choose how we respond. This program teaches children how to handle adversity, have courageous conversations, and to respond with love. The program also helps children acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy and compassion, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Written by educators, for educators, the Choose Love Enrichment Program includes powerful lessons for Pre-K through 12th grade and is aligned with Common Core Standards, American School Counselor Association Mindsets and Behaviors for Student Success, and SEL Competencies.