When Tragedies Happen

Last weekend’s Orlando shooting hit close to home for one Houston mother. Although the tragedy happened several states away, Jean Irving knew first-hand the emotions accompanied by such a horrific event.

Just two weeks ago, similar anxieties and fears spread throughout Houston as an army veteran tore through the streets of a Memorial neighborhood, armed with a pistol and an AR-15 assault-style rifle, similar to the weapon used by the Orlando shooter.  The Houston gunman fired 212 rounds and fatally shot a 56-year-old father before he was killed by police.

Right across the street, Jean was at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church parking lot with her two-year-old son and five-year-old twin daughters when she heard the first shots fired.

“I opened the door and started to get out of the car when I heard a gunshot,” she said. “I remember looking at [the bank across the street] and seeing the birds fly out of the tree.” Thinking she was over-reacting and the noise was probably just a transformer blowing or a car backfiring, Jean ushered her three young children into the church, leaving her two daughters in the lobby while taking her son to the nursery.

Inside the sanctuary, her husband Daniel, a pastor at the church, was concluding the first of two worship services. Shortly after he left the pulpit and just as Jean was returning to the lobby, the church fire alarm sounded.

“I went into pastor’s wife mode when the alarm went off,” she said. “We had no idea what triggered it, and I was just thinking how it would disrupt [the next] service.”

Church members disabled the alarm, but it went off again. Then a firetruck arrived, followed by a police car.

Protecting the children

When Jean saw an officer crouched behind his car in active shooting mode, she remembered the sound she heard earlier.  The magnitude of the situation began to sink in, and she shouted, “Everybody get down! There’s a shooter outside!”

She immediately grabbed her daughters, shoved them into a closet, and told them, “Stay right here. Do not move, and stay with Sandra {their godmother}.” She then told them, “I have to get Henry.”

Jean said that is when her teacher instincts kicked in. Before having children, she taught at a Katy ISD middle school, where she had been trained in the case of such events.

“I knew we had to get [the children in the nursery] away from the windows,” she said, adding that several were huddled around the windows to see the firetruck. She and the nursery workers gathered the 30 or 40 toddlers into a dark room where she said many began to cry from fear. Thankfully, they were eventually were reunited with their parents in the sanctuary.

The church went into a three-hour lock down while police engaged in a shootout with the gunman. Several cars in the church parking lot were shot, and Jean later saw bullet holes in cars just two spots away from where she parked.

Meanwhile, Daniel kept the congregation calm by praying and singing worship songs. At one point, they even played a movie for the children also involved in the lock down.

Talking about the tragedy

In the wake of the aftermath, however, the Irvings, along with dozens of other families from their church, were still struggling on how to address the shooting with their children when the Orlando massacre happened.

“The first few days were really hard because the girls were just questioning the safety of it all,” Jean said. “We would be out running errands, and they would ask, ‘Mommy, is it safe to go down that street,’ or ‘Mommy, are we going to get hurt here?'” One of their daughters was particularly sensitive to the events, so Jean decided to load everyone in the car and drive to Shipley Do-Nuts.

“The first thing we did was get some boxes of donuts and kolaches, and we took them to the firemen who protected us that day,” she said. “That was really healing for me and the girls to meet the good guys, to meet the guys who kept us safe.”

In the days since, Jean said she and her husband have tried to focus on the good and not on the bad of what happened.

“It’s so hard because [children] are so innocent, and everything is so good and rosy-colored, and I think the girls got a taste of the world we live in,” she said. “I think it was Mr. Rogers who said to look for the helpers. I try to show them there is far more good in the world than evil.”

She and her husband made a pact to keep the television off when the children were awake.

“We didn’t want the kids to see those images,” Daniel said. “We wanted it to come from us – to filter through us.”

Daniel said his family has always operated with openness and honesty. As a pastor who regularly visits hospitals and preaches at funerals, he admits his children have probably been exposed to death more than others their age.

“They ask what happened to the [shooter] and the hurt people,” he said. “We have tried to keep our answers factual and age appropriate.”

He and his wife told their children most of the story, but omitted facts such as the types of weapons used, the gunman’s motives, and the details of the deceased, which he said is beyond the grasp of children their age. He added that while he answers their questions, he also “checks in” with them every so often.

“Just like you or your spouse, children process these things at different speeds,” he said. “We drive by that area all the time, so things stir up. I think it’s better to keep the conversation open.”

That’s not to say they have told their children about the Orlando tragedy. Daniel said they only talk to their children about the Houston shooting because they were immediately involved. For Jean, however, the Orlando tragedy became more personal than other mass shootings she heard about or read about in the past.

“Since I’ve become a mom, I’ve become increasingly more aware of how to keep kids safe – things you never think about before you have children like water safety or holding hands to cross the street,” she said.

She said her family was very lucky, and what happened in Houston could have been much worse. Both recent gunmen carried similar rifles. However, unlike the gunman in Orlando, the one in Houston was not from the area and likely did not know that only yards from where he was shooting, 300 church members and children huddled in fear.

Where to go from here

No matter the city or the circumstance, many moms are wondering where to go from here. If that’s you, here are a few suggestions on how to talk to children about the recent tragedies and steps you can take to shine a bit of light in a time of such darkness…
  • Keep television news to a minimum when your children are around.
  • Let your children initiate the questions.
  • Answer their questions honestly without going in to greater detail.
  • Check in on them by asking about their feelings.
  • Visit a local fire or police department, where children can meet the heroes protecting them face-to-face.
  • Remind children that while bad things do happen, so do good things.
  • Ensure your children that you will do everything possible to keep them safe.

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