Helping My Grandchild Cope with a Violent Tragedy

When her granddaughter's friend was beaten in a headline-making attack, our writer tried to be there for her

By Molly Arost Staub

I never thought teen violence would touch my family.

Yet when I heard that a student was beaten up at a Deerfield Beach, Fla., middle school on March 17, I immediately feared it might have taken place at my granddaughter's school. Anna, 14, is an eighth-grader at the International Baccalaureate Middle School, which is housed within Deerfield Beach Middle School. That's the school where 15-year-old Michael Brewer had been set on fire by other students the previous October. This was disturbing enough, since Anna knew all the students involved from her lunch period.

I couldn't reach my daughter-in-law, Marci, who was teaching at another school; my son was traveling on business. I frantically tried reaching other family members, including Anna's older sister. We live about 40 minutes from each other and we're very close.

When the Victim Is a Friend

The victim was 15-year-old Josie Lou Ratley. Anna hadn't mentioned her to me before, but I learned that they frequently waited at the bus stop together, and often sat with each other on the ride home. Anna wasn't with Josie when the attack took place; her sister drove her home that day. But Anna found out about the beating immediately. "I started getting calls from my friends on my cell phone," she recalls, "and I saw the ambulances driving by."

As most people now know from the national headlines the case has generated, the victim apparently texted something to the alleged perpetrator, 15-year-old high-school student Wayne Treacy, about his brother, who had recently committed suicide — and about his 13-year-old girlfriend. Treacy allegedly told others he was going to kill Josie, then went home to change into steel-toed boots before going to the middle school and savagely beating Josie, repeatedly kicking her in the head. (She was in a medically induced coma for a month, and still can't speak.)

Anna cried hysterically, but she refused to speak to family members about the incident, and certainly not to the reporters who descended upon the campus. The school scheduled assembly programs about violence all week, where counselors told students they could make appointments to speak to someone. The assemblies also featured entertainment, Anna said, "from sororities and fraternities and rap groups."

The Worst Week

Anna and her friends tried to help, organizing a car wash to raise money for Josie's medical expenses. But soon, I noticed that she wrote on her Facebook page, "This has been the worst week of my life." I thought Anna should see a private therapist to deal with her grief and anger, and her mother agreed. But when she told this to the normally mild-mannered Anna, the girl screamed that she would just sit there in silence during the entire session. We thought a therapist would know how to deal with that, so Marci contacted the staff psychologist at Anna's school, who pulled Anna out of class, began by discussing her family and dogs, and got through to her.

The following week, Anna and I had a date for lunch, a "shopping spree" for her choice of a birthday gift, and a sleepover at my house. I treasure these opportunities for one-on-one bonding, and we really had a chance to gab.

I think it's important to focus on happy activities when kids are suffering. We certainly had fun buying spring clothes. But I took advantage of our close relationship as well. I said, "At the risk of your being angry at me, I feel I must say that it's important that you don't repress your feelings. Even adults who don't talk about their sorrows and anger can end up years later with ulcers and heart conditions." And she answered, "I know that now. And I'm talking to the psychologist at school about it." And we talked about it ourselves.

Finally I said, "Never, never, never, say or text anything negative on your cell phone or Facebook page. You don't know what might set somebody off."

Too Familiar With Violence?

Ellen Pober Rittberg agrees. The author of 35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You, So I Will (Trade Paper Press, 2010), and a grandmother herself, Rittberg was also a law guardian for children and teenagers for 13 years. "Moderation and forethought are not the strong suits of teens," she told me, "and, unfortunately, it sometimes isn't a strength of the adults who are supposed to be the role models for them." I often think about the cyberbullying that allegedly led to another girl's recent suicide in Massachusetts. Where are the parents?

Our society promotes so much violence in movies, TV and video games, especially those targeted to teens, that it's become part of their daily lives. And some young people, Rittberg notes, "may have mental-health issues that are not being addressed by parents, the school, or anyone. So the potential for violence is, for some teens, always there below the surface, waiting for a precipitating event like a death, an insult to reputation, or a perceived slight to bring it up to surface and play out." Still, while it's important to understand the sources of teen violence, Rittberg says we should never condone it; instead, she says, "We must teach morality and talk about the strength and the potency of words."

As for Anna, she says she’s feeling somewhat better now. Although she still doesn’t want to discuss her feelings, her school work is fine and she’s sleeping well. She’s involved in social activities with her friends. And we keep in touch regularly. I can only keep trying.

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