Unimaginable Grief: Reflections on the Newtown Film

I grew up in a home with the subtle lingering sorrow of parents who have lost a child. An older brother I never got to meet. 

I have dear friends who have lost their children. Mothers and fathers who will never be the same. 

I am gripped with grief every time I enter a windowless family waiting room to tell a parent that their child is dead. I often wonder how they are doing now, months or years later. How do they move on the way my parents and my friends who have lost children have moved on?

This is the hardest thing I ever do in my job. I operate on beating hearts. I crossclamp aortas. I whip out spleens 20 minutes skin to skin. But this, this is the hardest thing I have to do as a trauma surgeon, telling parents their child is dead. 

Last night at a trauma surgery professional meeting we were privileged to watch the Newtown Film documentary with the filmmaker and an ER physician who provided care that day and is a Newtown resident. It was a gut wrenching story about the evolution of grief.  It followed the parents who lost their children in this particularly gruesome and entirely preventable way. The grace and dignity with which they tackled life after 12/14 was remarkable, inspiring, and heartbreaking. It followed the teachers, the students, and the first responders who saw and heard what was simply unimaginable in even our worst nightmares…until then. Until 12/14/12. 

Carnage: 20 dead first graders. 6 dead educators. 

We are having myriad civil discussions at this meeting on what we as a profession can do to reduce firearms injuries. To be sure it’s a careful line to walk in our current societal climate. Avid readers of this blog already know where I personally stand on this issue based on my experiences as a trauma surgeon and the fact that I am human. 

But today, today I just can’t get my mind of those dead children. They were loved and cherished lives filled with infinite potential. A lone gunman whose mother thought it appropriate to have a semi-automatic weapon and multi-round bullets in her home took them all away. 

They didn’t stand a chance. Not with that weapon. Not with that kind of ammo. All gunned down in <5mi. 

How many of us wave good bye to our little tykes, back packs all snug on their shoulders, expecting them to return home at the end of the school day? My own child was a sitting in a first grade classroom not too far north of Newtown, CT on that day. Any of us could be these parents experiencing unimaginable grief. 

I am once again listening to the words of Lin Manuel Miranda from Hamilton to try to buoy me through these emotions as a mother, as a surgeon, as a human with a soul. 

In ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ Eliza who has lost her son to gun violence sings:

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is suffering too terrible to name.

You hold your child as tight as you can

and push away the unimaginable.

The moments when you’re in so deep,

it feels easier to just swim down.

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is a grace too powerful to name.

We push away what we can never understand,

we push away the unimaginable.”

Her husband Alexander sings:

“If I could spare his life,

If I could trade his life for mine,

he’d be standing here right now

and you would smile, and that would be

enough.

I don’t pretend to know

the challenges we’re facing.

I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost

and you need time”

The chorus repeatedly adds:

“They are trying to do the unimaginable.”

The Newtown Film chronicles a community trying to do the unimaginable. While I cried through most of the film watching the grief unfold, the most powerful moment for me was when David Wheeler who lost is son Ben was testifying to a CT legislative task force. He said “The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life.” That line took my breath away like a sucker punch to my gut.

The Newtown Film is powerful and difficult to watch but I hope that all of us Americans- parents, teachers, first responders, policy makers, legislators, and professional organizations – all of us  see it.  With this film, I hope that the national dialogue will become less contentious as we realize that no one, no parent, no school, no community, should ever have to suffer such imaginable grief. 

Trauma Surgeon’s Ballad by Lin Manuel Miranda

Like much of America, my family is currently obsessed with everything Hamilton on Broadway. We jammed to the sound track all summer. The season culminated with a late August trip to the show which I described on social media as the best day of my life. Seeing the show, the actors, the set, and choreography, come to life with lyrics we had all memorized was such an amazing experience.


I cried.

Part of that was pinching myself that it was actually happening (NB: Tickets now that the original cast is gone are not that hard to find on resale sites but still cost quite a bit above face value.) And the other parts were one particular segment that just cut into my soul when I saw the character of Aaron Burr singing it.

I sobbed.

Let me provide you context. Burr is an orphan who is in love with a married woman. He has decided that with everything he has gone through, all of the losses he has suffered, he is willing “to wait” for the woman he loves. As someone who was taught to hate Burr by her high school history teacher who was a Hamilton scholar, this humanization of Aaron Burr was a bit off-putting at first. But the reason I simply could not stop the tears while experiencing the song with all of my senses as the show was not about the forbidden love story behind it, rather is was the commentary on death.

“Death doesn’t discriminate

between the sinners

and the saints,

it takes and it takes and it takes

and we keep living anyway.

We rise and we fall

and we break

and we make our mistakes.”

These words resonate so strongly with my trauma surgeon’s soul. We provide care indiscriminately, irrespective of race, socio-economic status, mechanism of injury, insurance, etc. And we lose people. Sometimes they arrive lifeless; sometimes our efforts fail. When that happens we are broken. We wonder if we could have done anything differently; did we make a mistake? But we have to go on “living” because there are more patients waiting. Some of them are sinners while others are saints and it doesn’t matter we treat them all the same. Then we wait for the next patient to arrive.

The title of the song is Wait for It.

The Hamilton sound track is still more or less played in a continuous loop in my home, in our cars, on my runs. And every time I hear this song I cry. I can’t help it. It simultaneously breaks my heart for all my patients who have died and provides me reason to keep coming back to this very emotionally challenging and physically exhausting profession. I know it was not Lin Manuel Miranda intent to write this segment of music (the lyrics and the accompaniment which is haunting) for the trauma surgeon in me but that has been it’s effect and I am so grateful.

And as for the burnout that is particularly rampant in my specialty, despite the tears from this particular song, the overall experience of seeing the show on Broadway was truly one of the happiest days of my life – a perfect way to spend a weekend off and return to work refreshed and ready to wait for it