The above image of a woman holding her son was from the article in the New York Times about the movie theater shooting in Aurora. (The photo is credited to Barry Gutierrez of the Associated Press.)
I know that I would have felt sympathy for this woman, and for her anguished relief at finding her son alive after the senseless, horrific slaughter, at any point in my adult life. Though it’s not stated explicitly, it seems reasonable to conclude that he had attended a screening of the new Batman movie at the cinema where the shootings took place, and her distress must have been unimaginably extreme as she faced the thought that he might number among the victims. I know myself well enough to know that I would have been moved in some way by the image, had I seen it three or five or ten years ago. (I remember being incredibly sad for days after Columbine.)
But today? Today I had to compose myself after seeing this picture. Today her fear and relief are real to me in a way I know I could not possibly have understood before I became a parent myself. When I heard the words of the President’s speech a short time ago, I had to similarly compose myself after hearing him speak of how glad he was to know he would be able to hold his daughters tonight, and how his thoughts go out to those who are no longer so lucky.
The thought of something happening to my son is literally unthinkable to me, in that I cannot tolerate thinking about it. The prospect is so utterly devastating to me that, frankly, I can’t even type much more than this, through superstition or psychological barrier or some other indefinable obstacle. While I have no moral condemnation for her, I now understand in a way I could not when it was published why there was such a strong reaction to Ayelet Waldman’s piece in which she wrote that she could better survive the death of her children than her husband. If that is true for her, then why should I judge her harshly for saying so? But I could never write similar words, because if either thing were to happen to me it would leave me a blasted shell of myself, and comparing them would be like comparing being hit by a nuclear weapon or a Mack truck at full speed. The distinction is pointless to consider.
None of this is to in any way suggest that the empathy of those who are not parents is in any way impaired or inhibited. In fact, none of this is to say anything about anyone other than myself. I have no idea how anyone else really feels about anything in the end, though we all make reasonable guesses about people we come to know in our lives. Doubtless there are gaps and flaws in my ability to understand the suffering of others that are not experienced by countless other people, parent and non-parent alike.
But today this story hits me harder and in a different place than it would have three years ago. It gets me no closer to making sense of a senseless horror like this, of course. But for me the picture of what happened in the middle of the night is clearer than it would have been, and I am so sorry and so sad for the people who have pointlessly lost the ones most dear to them in the whole world.