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Unimaginable Grace in the Wake of Unspeakable Grief

In early January a tragic accident occurred during a hockey game at my sons’ school. In the midst of a most ordinary play, a 16-year-old player sustained a fatal injury. The incident left teachers, coaches, and parents from two schools and their surrounding communities reeling and wrestling with how to support, speak, grieve, and move through the unimaginable.

“How is your son doing?” a friend asks. Her answers are as uncertain as mine: “He seems OK. I don’t know — it’s hard to tell.”

My teenage sons don’t share much on a good day. In the hours and days that followed their retreat was swift and palpable. “Stop asking questions,” my husband advised. “They will talk when they are ready.” Will they? I worried.

“They won’t say much but they will want you close,” said child and adolescent psychologist, Darby Fox. “Not to gender stereotype but with boys particularly it’s common not to want to speak about it. Talking about it keeps it fresh and they don’t want to dwell on something that is out of their control.”

Her words remind me of Lin Manuel Miranda’s meditation on traumatic loss, Quiet Uptown: “There are moments that the words won’t reach, There is a suffering too terrible to name, We push away what we can never understand, We push away the unimaginable.”

I see and feel my boys push away.

When we learned the extent of the player’s injury, I went to give my son a hug. “This is not about me,” he said, pulling away. A few days later when I told my husband I could not stop thinking about the boy and the family and considered writing about it, he echoed my son’s response: “This is not our tragedy.”

I understand what they are saying. We have been at the heart of sudden loss and I know this is not where we stand now. We did not lose a child, but someone just steps away did and it’s impossible not to feel the shock and sadness emanating from the center. My heart is broken for a mom and dad whose son left for school on an ordinary Thursday and never came home.

I realize, as a parent, I see this, like everything else, from a different perspective than my kids. Grief and spiritual counselor, Andrea Raynor, explains how a tragedy like this affects everyone differently: “Parents are grieving on multiple levels. In shared heartbreak, they grieve for the parents who lost the child, for young boys who may feel responsible, and for their own children who may have been traumatized by the accident. They may also be experiencing a new and vivid fear for their children’s safety. The unimaginable has happened. As parents, we feel vulnerable, terrified, and so deeply shaken.”

This is true. Part of what haunts me is that this tragedy occurred in the midst of a very routine yet joyous activity: a high school game, a moment of play, an event that draws kids and parents together to compete and cheer on rinks, fields, and courts every day in every town across the country. Parents and participants alike are not naïve, they know that injury is always a risk — but no one can ever anticipate or prepare for this.

My sons were visibly shaken when they told me about it. They have friends on the team and friends who were in the stands. Two of them were just outside the rink when it happened. They saw the ambulance pull away. It feels irresponsible not to speak about it in some way.

While acknowledging that the boys may be in shock and not ready to talk about it much less process how they feel, Raynor notes: “It is good to check in with your kids occasionally. That’s also our job as parents as annoying as it can be. It shows we recognize they have been through something hard, that we have not forgotten the boy who died, his family, or the other boys involved.”

Over the days that followed I asked if they had heard anything from their friends or from school. I asked how the players on the team were doing and if they knew any of the boys who were there. “It doesn’t matter,” my son responded, angry and frustrated. “I know,” I said, realizing he knows it could have been anyone. Any player on either team. Any parent in the stands. It could have been anyone.

My sons did not know the boy who died. He played for the visiting team. He had a big and beautiful smile. Social media allowed us all to see that smile, to see his number five emblazoned in tribute on the backs of professional, school and club hockey players, to learn small details about his life and to learn and relearn the details about his death.

In a gesture of profound empathy and grace, the boy’s parents requested that the original, widely publicized account of the accident be corrected to more accurately reflect what happened during the game. They wanted to clarify that what occurred was a “tragic accident” and that no one was at fault. In the midst of unspeakable grief, they were thinking of the other boys competing with their son in the moment, the players on both teams, all the coaches, trainers, and parents there that day.

This is not our tragedy. This is another family’s tragedy and at a time when they could have closed ranks, focused only on their son, their family, their grief, they did not push away — they made the effort to think of others struggling in the wake of their loss.

This made a deep impact on my sons and as it turns out this is what we have talked about most. The boys shared: “The parents wanted us to know it was an accident.” They told us how they all signed a book for the family and that they will wear number five on their team uniforms this winter and spring. They know none of this brings a young boy back to his parents, his teammates, his friends — but it’s what they can do and that’s what they’ve talked about.

I know there are no adequate words to address or process this or any tragedy that lies ahead. I know we can’t help our kids avoid loss, pain, and sadness. Maybe all we can do is turn our attention to the good, the beauty, and the light that shines through in the darkest of times. As my boys have been trying to tell me all along: there are no words — only kindness, camaraderie, empathy, and grace.


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