Every family has its rituals.
From those first wakeful moments to the end of the day when heads sink into nighttime pillows, each family moves to its own rhythm. At its best, family is a safe place steeped in the comforts of familiarity. From special nicknames to the shared history of private jokes, traditions bloom.
An essential ritual for families with school-age children revolves around the morning’s fleeting farewell. Our mission, seldom articulated but felt deep in our bones, is to fuel our children’s courage to explore the big world unfolding before them. Braided into the ritual of departure is the promise of their safe return.
For many parents, these morning goodbyes become a fraught endeavor in the wake of a school shooting. As we all know by now, 19 children, ages 9 to 11, and two of their teachers were killed by a gunman Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. As we also know, this tragedy has gutted parents across the country.
On Wednesday morning, this fear was palpable. I witnessed it in our newsroom meetings full of young parents, and in threads flooding my social media accounts. People with children in their lives are afraid for the safety of their kids, and they are wondering if anyone in power even cares.
‘Memorizing his outfit in case something awful happened’
For more than a decade, I have posted questions for discussion on my Facebook page, which is public. Around 11 a.m. on Wednesday, I shared a 10-year-old photo of my husband walking our grandson into day care with this message:
A lot of us have been talking privately about our rituals for sending off our children in the mornings, or after visits. For example, our 8-year-old granddaughter and I have a rule for the end of our weekly FaceTime calls: We never say goodbye. Instead, we end with, “See you soon.”
Those of you with children in your lives, what are your rituals for sending them off? Did that change in any way this morning?
Within an hour, more than 120 people had responded, and the list kept growing. It is less a thread than a skein of multiple worries: Stories of cherished habits interwoven with fears for their children’s future; tales of sweet memories interlaced with accounts of forced optimism to keep little kids calm.
Smiling at bus stops and school entrances for as long as they can see their children, and then breaking down into tears. Assuring their children that, yes, it will be a good day and you are safe at school, freshly mindful that we cannot guarantee this, ever. Remembering to say “I love you” because they do, but they always want to know those were their last words to their children, every morning.
“I sadly found myself memorizing his outfit in case something awful happened,” Jen Guinto wrote. “Because that’s the world we live in.”
Elizabeth Scott described how, on the drive to kindergarten, her granddaughter talked about how she had practiced that morning with her bulletproof backpack. “She told me Daddy had her show him (my son) 3 times how to get her backpack, unzip it, get in a ball and put it over her.”
Amanda Dlugiewicz wrote that she did not mention the shooting to her kids, who endure routine active-shooter drills. Tuesday night, though, “my 8-year-old asked me to sing him to sleep. Something he hasn’t requested in over a year.”
Single mother Nina Auctor described the additional anguish of not always being the one to say goodbye to her child in the morning. “One of the hardest things about shared parenting has been not being able to see my child come home after a school shooting or be able to send him off the next morning with hugs. So, I drove to the parking lot of his school a few minutes ago just to sit there and think about how he is inside and OK. As if somehow me sitting in the parking lot could prevent someone arriving minutes after I leave and doing the worst things there are to do.”
‘I almost wanna just keep her home’
As the thread of stories grew, we wanted to hear parents’ stories in their own voices, too. So USA TODAY Opinion set up a Google phone number and invited readers to leave messages.
Megan LaFollette, a mother from Louisville, Kentucky, said she always tells her children, “Have a good day, I love you and make good choices.”
The day after the shootings, that upbeat message filled her with dread.
“It was hard to tell them to make good choices today because I don’t even know what that means anymore.”
So many parents mentioned the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults, in their messages. Of course, they do. How could we not think of them, and their families who still grieve?
April Balcombe-Anderson lives in Austin, Texas, and has a 15-year-old son, whom she drove to school the day after the shooting. Her voice message was laced with memories of the tragedy from Newtown, Connecticut. “I teared up on the way while I was discussing this, about how sad it was for me to send him off to school worried that he could be shot at school. … I’m glad to hear the school has now emergency plans in place for active shooters. I’m so sad and extremely disheartened that I have to have this as an issue that’s facing us in 2022, and that it has only gotten worse since the Sandy Hook shooting."
Susan Barratt-Kelly has 10 grandchildren, four of whom attend an elementary school next to her home in Evanston, Illinois. “It’s one of the joys of my life to see them walking to school or stopping over after school,” she said. During recess, she hears “the thrills and the delights on the playground. … And not just my grandchildren’s joy. It’s the joy of all the children in the K-through-5 school.”
In recent days, a shadow has hovered. “I hope that I never have to hear those screams of delight turn to screams of terror, or to hear the bell being interrupted by gunshots."
Like so many parents, Allysun Selick, who lives in Avon Lake, Ohio, described how she was more intentional in her goodbye with her daughter, who has just turned 16.
“She has six days left of her sophomore year, and how fearful I was of losing her in these last six days. I almost wanna just keep her home. But that isn’t fair.”
She drove her to school, as she always does. “We usually say, ‘Bye’ or ‘See ya,’ or just confirm who is picking her up. But I made it a point today to look in her eyes and say, ‘I love you.’ And I know she knows that, but I felt that it had to be said out loud.”
Her teenage daughter is not her only child. “And the little one who’s 4, we live walking distance of her elementary school. And the thought of sending her there for kindergarten is almost just as gut-wrenching.”
Many parents shared frustration, and often anger, with the failure of Congress and state legislatures to pass meaningful gun control legislation.
Terry Kubiak is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. “My heart is breaking over all these mass murders,” she said. “And I just don't understand why our politicians will not enact some type of gun control."
Always, themes of religious faith bubble up after a tragedy. Lisa Atchison is a mother in Fishers, Indiana.
“After prayer, I just spoke to my kids, the two oldest: ‘We believe that God is always with us. It's OK to question why bad things happen to good people. It's OK to be upset, it's OK to be scared. It's OK to feel whatever feelings that you have. God is not surprised by our feelings, because he feels them, too, along with us. And we know that the Bible says that God will never leave us.
“And in those times that bad things happen, and we don't feel near to him, we can trust that he's not gone. But he's right there next to us, next to those kids, next to their parents. And so that we trust he's always with us."
Semaj Vanzant Sr. is pastor of Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the father of two boys in elementary school.
“We pray with them before they go to bed,” he said. “We pray with them as they’re on their way to school. But this morning, I tell you, I believe the prayer was more intense. It’s always sincere, but definitely more intense. And I found myself reflecting on the prayer.
“And one of the things I realized was that I was not … praying for them only, but that I was praying for myself too."
Struggling with goodbyes that became permanent
The Rev. Vanzant’s prayer with his children took me back three decades ago, when I used to drive my daughter to her elementary school. Every morning, our prayer was an out loud list of gratitude. It was a way to center her, I hoped, in the certainty of all that was good in her life.
One morning, when she was in fourth grade, she sat in the back seat and rolled her eyes when I looked in the rearview mirror and said, “OK, time for our prayer!”
“Dear God,” she said. “You know the list. Amen.”
For the longest time, that was a funny memory. Now, it feels like a bygone era, forever lost to us in America.
My little girl is now the mother of two of our eight beautiful grandchildren. I love each of them with a fierceness that sometimes catches me off guard. The heart is never tapped out, I’ve learned. And because the innocence of childhood is as recognizable as it is transcendent, I see my grandchildren in the faces of those 19 babies who were killed in Robb Elementary School.
We know why millions of us are mourning, even if we aren’t willing to say it out loud. We knew why we are suddenly struggling with those goodbyes we hope are brief interruptions in a family’s life.
We are imagining the unspeakable grief of those families who, just like us, thought “goodbye” meant “see you soon.” We are seeing the children we love in the extinguished promise of their lives.
Contributing: Eileen Rivers, Carli Pierson, Lynn Lazaro
USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz