A shocking child murder in Singapore has left a country struggling with its grief. Nicole Law explains why, in the face of tragedy, it’s ok not be ok.
We live in highly volatile times. In one week alone, the news here in Singapore has shifted from a potential improvement in the pandemic situation, with the relaxing of various socialisation measures, to a sudden stop to all dining-in at food establishments.
Meanwhile, nothing prepared the nation for the shocking news of the murder of a student by a fellow student in a local school. As an educator myself, I was giving a lesson when the news broke. I noticed a few students at the back of my class were distracted and discussing something. I asked, “Some news update? Care to share with the class?”
One of them showed me their phone and when I read the headline – ‘Student murdered this morning …’, I struggled to find words.
As the rest of the class started to check their phones, a sense of heaviness hung over the room. Hushed whispers, worried looks and nervous laughter. I had half an hour of tutorial time left and knew that the focus of this lesson was no longer going to be the questions we were reviewing, but the processing of this difficult piece of news. A few students appeared visibly affected and shocked.
At that moment, I was well aware that my role as an educator had changed. No longer was it my priority to follow the assigned syllabus but, rather, I had to become a safe harbour for these students to express the thoughts in their hearts.
Nothing we learn in our days as trainee teachers quite prepares us for times like this.
How do we talk about grief? Do we even get to grieve, if we are not directly involved in the incident itself?
These were the questions on my mind as we put away our notes and observed some silence.
One of the young people said, “I can’t believe this has happened.” For the next half-hour, we discussed how we felt about the news and, though we did not solve any problem or improve the situation, the students were thankful for that time and space to come to terms with what had occurred.
Too often, we become numb to difficult emotions and prefer to suppress feelings like despair, anger and confusion which surface at moments like this. In my experience as an educator, this is not healthy as we learn to push our emotions away and to downplay their intensity instead of allowing ourselves to feel their full force.
We need not necessarily run away from sadness or grief. If we do not allow ourselves the time and space to fully experience these emotions, we will never heal from the trauma wrought on our psyches.
In recent months, the number of mental illness diagnoses reported worldwide has increased and this reveals a deep undercurrent of anxiety, despair and the steady suppression of our emotions.
In other times, we would have had an outlet to express our emotions or simply to decompress – taking time away from the seemingly overwhelming surge of stimuli brought on by constantly updating headlines. We would have socialised, talked about our problems with our friends face to face, or walked outside unencumbered by masks.
Now, we are confined to our homes, the amount of social contact we have with others has decreased significantly, and we find ourselves increasingly isolated. It is not surprising that many people burden themselves internally rather than sharing it with others. We look around and see other people struggling to cope with work, uncertainty and fear and do not want to place additional stress on them. Yet, the more we insist that we can sort ourselves out, the heavier the load on our own shoulders.
There will come a breaking point when we will snap and resort to behaviours that may not be positive for ourselves or the people around us… some may become easily irritable, lose their patience or resort to violence. For a few suicidal thoughts will appear …
For many of us prayer can be a highly positive way to grieve, also bringing to God our questions and even complaints – “Why, Lord, did you allow this to happen?” – while always accepting that he knows best. But let’s not forget that he has also given us others to support us in our grief.
At a deeper level, the school axe murder has brought a nation together through collective grief at the loss of a young life and the breakdown of another one.
But we will teach our children much more by engaging with them, acknowledging these difficult emotions and letting them ask the challenging questions which we do not know the answers to.
Our emotional responses to events around us are not a weakness but a sign of the human spirit resisting the urge to dissociate itself from the unresolved tensions which permeate our existence in society.
We are all the stronger for letting ourselves grieve fully. We will teach our children much more from how we express our grief than we ever would by encouraging them to hide it. Even in the darkness that surrounds us, there is indomitable light and strength. This is the opportune moment for us to model how to find strength in our weakness and to know that it is ok to not be ok.
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