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Unspeakable Words

My two oldest kids returned to their high school this morning. On the surface, it was a normal morning. I asked Aidan if she knew the hoodie she chose had a splatter of pizza sauce on the back. I asked Ryley if he brushed his hair. I made sure both had their phones. But trepidation hung in the air and was strongest by the front door. They lingered a little longer than usual and then they were gone.

It was good to have them home yesterday. My husband took the day off. We had to get our four other school kids up and out the door, but we let Aidan and Ryley sleep until they woke up on their own. They were exhausted in every way. While they slept, we decided it would be nice to play some of the board games that were still out from our weekend tabletop game day. We sprang our brilliant idea on each of them when they lurched awake a few minutes apart. Aidan wasn’t interested and neither was Ryley. We prevailed when we got them to agree to just one game, with snacks and store-brand soda. Someone nominated a card game called Rage.

Shuffling Rage. Dealing Rage. Fanning Rage. Slapping Rage down on the table and then scooping Rage because you won the trick. Adding up Rage scores with a pencil on paper, laughing because the kid who was the most skeptical of our little game day won.

And then, something sweet and surprising happened. They wanted to play another game, something we had never played before—Unspeakable Words. I got this spelling/word game for Christmas. The box was still wrapped in plastic. I made a hissing sound when I shimmied the lid up and off. We unwrapped the deck of cards and read the rules. It was going to be simple, fast, and hopefully fun. We played and declared it a keeper.

Unspeakable words

For the rest of the day, Unspeakable Words kept popping in my head. I wasn’t thinking about the game as much as the awful truth of the phrase. There are words that turn me into Fonzie attempting to say he’s sorry. Like, suicide. I could say it, but my tongue had to be ridden like a wild bull each time. My mouth wanted to buck the word off and out, distasteful and wearing sharp spurs.

On Monday, I wrote about how all my words and thoughts were tangled. It got easier to talk about it with each attempt. I was overly conscious of being too much of a Feelings Stalker, so I looked for natural openings in conversations, rather than forcing and being awkward. If there’s anything a teen hates, it’s feeling or witnessing someone else being awkward. It’s hard because they are at the age when awkward and vulnerable are pretty much the same thing. It was up to us to take the lead and model the difference.

I told Aidan about moments of crisis when I was a teenager, things she never knew. I told her the mistakes I made and the things I did right. No, I don’t know exactly what she encountered or felt. But by showing her what vulnerable is—an honorable awkward—it let her drop her aversion to appearing cool and in control and that’s when she began to talk and I shut up.

All the advice is listen, listen, listen, but when your kid clams up the only thing you listen to is the coffee maker running, again. Vulnerability goes farther than just about anything else.

I wish I could compile a wise list of advice for parents dealing with kids who experience a school-related tragedy. I have learned it is completely different when it is your kids’ school. It’s exceedingly different for them, too. It just is. A couple of years ago, when one of our boys found a dead body, I wrote about the event. In a cynical moment, I thought about writing one of those Wise Internet Mother Posts called How To Help Your Kid When He Finds a Dead Body. There’s nothing out there about that situation. I looked.

But there is plenty about helping children deal with school-related tragedies and I’m not adding to the volumes of advice. Some of it is crap. Some is good. Occasionally, it’s great, but none of it can make everything better for you kid, or you, or your community. There are no magic words because it is viscerally personal. Creating a household culture of resilience, courage, forgiveness, humor, and faith goes a long way, but even then?

Nothing can prepare you. Realizing nothing can prepare you is preparation. It’s humbling. It’s vulnerable. That’s square one stuff.

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