Consolation (Without Religion) for a Grieving Child

Last week, an 8-year-old boy in Seal Beach, Calif., was orphaned in one of the worst ways I can imagine: His mother was shot to death and his father charged with capital murder. In a case that has gained national attention, Scott Dekraai is accused of killing his ex-wife in a murderous rampage — fueled, at least in part, by a custody dispute over their son. As police tell it, Dekraai armed himself with guns and stormed the salon where his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, worked as a stylist. He allegedly shot her, then turned the gun on eight other people. All but one died.

The rampage occurred less than a mile from McGaugh Elementary School, where Dekraai's son was a second-grader. At the time of Dekraai's arrest, the boy was sitting in his principal’s office, waiting for one of his parents to take him home.

The tragedy struck a personal chord for me. McGaugh is one of the six elementary schools in my daughter’s school district, which means the 8-year-old might very well attend middle school with my daughter someday. I suppose that's why I can't stop thinking about how hard it can be to explain death to a child, and how much harder it must be to explain this particular death to this particular child.

On Tuesday, I wrote a pitch to a website that matches writers with experts in various fields. I explained that I was working on a book for nonreligious parents and wanted advice on consoling grieving children without religion. I got dozens of responses. I’ll share what I've learned in a future post, but I can tell you that most of the respondents said consoling kids without invoking religious imagery is not only possible — it's preferable.

The one respondent who disagreed had this to say: “What a truly sad idea. It would be far better to write a book about how to help parents find Christ and tap into the healing power of His love during difficult times. Positively In Christ!”

I don't know what "Positively in Christ" is supposed to mean, but I do wonder whether religion — the foundation of so many heartfelt condolences throughout the world —  can absorb a bit of the sadness suffered by children.

Some children, maybe. But the Seal Beach boy? Unlikely. After all, would picturing your mom alongside God in heaven offer any solace if it meant you then had to picture your father burning in hell? Would it ease your mind to be told that your mom's murder during a custody battle was part of “God’s plan,” or would such a revelation serve only as a bizarre side note to your real-life horror?

I don’t claim to know.

But I do know this: Whether this boy is surrounded by religious or nonreligious messages, there is hope. Lots of it.

An Orphan Who Overcame the Odds

One of the most remarkable people I ever met was a boy named Charlie Schockner, whose mother was slashed to death in 2004 by a hitman hired by his father.

I met Charlie in 2007 while covering Manfred Schockner's murder trial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. By then, Charlie was 17 and had developed a justifiable hatred for his dad, who had abused him and his mom both physically and emotionally for years before the murder. When the judge sentenced Manfred to life in prison without parole, Charlie bucked back in his seat and pumped his fist. He was grateful to have justice for his mother and relieved to be forever free of his father's grasp.

Charlie had the support of an amazing extended family, who scooped him into their lives without missing a beat. Less than a year after he’d moved to Georgia, I got word from his uncle that Charlie was doing wonderfully both in school and in life. Today, he is a strikingly handsome college student with, according to his Facebook page, more than 700 friends. He speaks four languages, works at a tea shop, and describes himself as always having a smile on his face.

When I think of Dekraai's son, and the profound sadness and confusion he must be feeling today, I am comforted not by God, not by Jesus, not by Buddha, Allah or Brahman — but by Charlie Schockner, a victim of tragedy who managed to put the past behind him.

As I write this, I do hope the little guy in Seal Beach is doing okay. But more than that, I hope that by the time my daughter meets him, he will have benefited enormously from the love of those around him and, like Charlie, be facing the future with a smile on his face.

To contribute to The “Seal Beach Victims’ Fund,” you may contact the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce or the Seal Beach Bank of America. The Chamber is at 201 Eighth St., Suite 120, Seal Beach. The bank is at 208 Main St., Seal Beach. The ZIP for both is 90740.