Cullen: Good advice for Boston from a dad who lost his little girl
The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column on April 26, 2013:
A friend of mine lost his only child to cancer days before her first birthday. I didn’t know Jon then, 10 years ago. The guy I’ve gotten to know is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. A new acquaintance today would never guess this man had endured about the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
How did Jon get on with life? A grief counselor gave him specific instructions: “Under no circumstances was I to make any major changes in my life for at least a year,” he recounts.
Don’t quit your job. Don’t sell your house or move. Don’t divorce your spouse. Don’t commit suicide. Don’t begin an affair. Don’t take up drugs. Don’t buy an expensive toy. No big changes, not for a year.
After a year is up, if you still want to do some or all of those things, well, OK. Maybe. We can talk about it then. But not for a year. Today, you’re not thinking straight. You’re not capable of making good decisions. Don’t compound one tragedy by doing something rash making the situation worse.
“Grieve first, then make decisions – not the other way around,” Jon says.
What is good advice in the wake of a private tragedy is also good advice for policy makers after public tragedies.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, there is a strong impulse to do something. It’s a basic instinct born of the best intentions, a human compulsion rising from a conceit: If only we’d done X, Y, or Z, this horrible tragedy could have been prevented. If only we put this or that policy in place, we can stop this from happening again.
Better security, goes without saying. More surveillance cameras, since we’re glad Lord & Taylor used them. Restrict immigration laws, because today’s kids could grow up to be tomorrow’s bombers. Mandate see-through backpacks. Ban fireworks. Limit the sale of nails and BBs. Require background checks before the purchase of pressure cookers.
Just do something, whether it makes sense or not. Taking action shows you care.
We see this same reaction four months after the Newtown massacre. Not that background checks, bans on automatic guns, limits on the size of clips, or $10 million for mental health programs would have prevented the Newtown shooter from carrying out his murderous rampage. Pass a law and tell yourself we’ve done something. It will make you feel better. It’s therapy.
Laws passed in the heat of the moment rarely make good policy. Once the immediate fire is put out, sometimes the best thing policy makers can do is nothing for a while. Grieve first, for a year. Then make decisions.
The post-Newtown gun debate illustrates the need for cooling off periods. Hot heads abound on both sides. On the right, some conservatives went apoplectic this month when U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte voted to allow a vote on expanding background checks on gun purchases. With the bill on the floor, Ayotte then voted against it, prompting the left to go apoplectic in turn.
Did those on the right who criticized Ayotte for agreeing to hold a vote defend her when she voted with them in the end? Of course not, something Sen. Ayotte will surely remember next time gun-rights supporters seek her vote.
Another set of bug-eyed paranoiacs and self-appointed constitutional scholars, including three New Hampshire state reps, are calling for the resignation of 189 of their colleagues over differences of opinion about how broad New Hampshire’s “Castle Doctrine” governing self-defense should be. The whole issue is a solution in search of a problem; prosecutions for overly aggressive self-defense are as rare as New Hampshire mountain lions.
The Legislature has had an abundance of conspiracy theorists in recent years, which made it as easy for Auburn Rep. Stella Tremblay to blend in with the crowd as it was for the Tsarnaev brothers. Her stated belief that the Boston bombing was staged by the government was rightly condemned by House Minority Leader (and former Speaker) Gene Chandler and the state Republican Party.
Take it from my friend Jon. Tragedy isn’t something you forget or get over, but you get on with life by not overreacting.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.