People never really recover from the death of a child. How much more difficult, then, is it to deal with the deaths of other children whom your child has killed? Most parents are not able to talk about it publicly. But the statement released by the parents of the young man who killed six other young people at the University of Santa Barbara over the weekend is illuminating.
Elliot Rodger's mother and father, who were on their way to their son when they heard about the murders and all their worst fears came true, asked a family friend, Simon Astaire, to release a statement to the media.
"We are crying in pain for the victims and their families. It breaks our hearts on a level that we didn’t think possible," Astaire read on the Today show Thursday. "The feeling of knowing that it was our son’s actions that caused the tragedy can only be described as hell on earth."
Grief is an incredibly debilitating emotion, but shame may be worse, according to Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, "Shame is the most powerful, master emotion," she has said. "Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement." So much shame surrounds the issue of mental illness that many parents don't seek help for their kids or are afraid to talk about it publicly. Rodger's parents seem to feel that needs to change.
In the current era, when anybody does the unthinkable, the actions of his or her parents come under close scrutiny, and every parenting decision is questioned. Dealing with the grief and with the public opprobrium makes the stuff of nightmares even worse, even though the offspring who kills has always been a vivid specter since the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel to movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin. As with grief, not everybody responds in the same way.
Serial killer and cannibal Jeffery Dahmer's mother threw herself into her work with AIDS victims. David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted Kaczynski, the unabomber, speaks out publicly about mental illness and reaches out to others who find themselves in the same nightmare. But the family of Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Gaby Giffords and killed others in Arizona, withdrew completely from public view, erecting high fences around their property and boarding up their windows. And there are those who refuse to believe their child is guilty. Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev's mother seems to be in this camp, claiming her sons are being framed for the Boston marathon bombings.
"Guilt is just as powerful [as shame], but its influence is positive, while shame's is destructive," says Brown. Rodger's parents appear to be responding with what Brown would call an appropriate amount of guilt. "It is now our responsibility to do everything we can to help avoid this happening to any other family," their statement said. "Not only to avoid more innocence destroyed, but also to identify and deal with the mental issues that drove our son to do what he did.”