Almost as soon as the armed assault on Sandy Hook School abruptly ended on December 14, 2012, cascades of information flowed outward to the world — some of it false, some of it true, some of it useless, some of it essential. Concurrently, there was an emotional response that was beyond telling but which moved with such power and force that it perturbed the flow some of the most useful information at a critical time for those victims’ families at the center of the tragedy. That was one of the poignant insights shared last week with the governor’s appointed Sandy Hook Advisory Commission by David and Francine Wheeler, parents of Benjamin Wheeler, who died at the school that tragic morning.
Acknowledging that everyone involved was “completely overwhelmed by the scope of this catastrophe,” Mr Wheeler noted that he and his wife, who still had a son in the school system, heard nothing from the school board or school administrators for a week and a half, and learned only six months later that a trauma team was in place. The state response was to open and maintain lines of communication with families and to assign each victim’s family a state trooper to facilitate security. Locally, there was no such direct liaison, no central clearinghouse of information set up by the town for the families, according to Mr Wheeler. “When your life is changed in this way and you experience this kind of loss,” he explained, “you are starving for information.”
There was also a great need for assistance delivered with “purpose” and “confidence,” according to the Wheelers, who said they were astonished to be approached repeatedly by representatives of governmental and nonprofit service agencies only to have them break down in their own grief; they were clearly emotionally unprepared for their assignment. “We were the ones who ended up consoling them,” Mr Wheeler told the commission. The great sensitivity locally to the loss and privacy of victims’ families may have become an impediment to the flow of important information to them from officials who “were hesitant, if not afraid, to impose or intrude,” he said.
Tragedies whip up great storms of emotion and information, thanks to the speed, reach, and facility of modern media. Ironically, as we now know, those whose great loss lies at the center of such storms can be left wanting for support and information when their need is most critical. We will await the specific recommendations of the governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, but after hearing from the Wheelers last week, the message should be clear: when people need help, give it directly and quickly, with respect, sensitivity, and competence. And understand the difference between an emotional response and a compassionate response.