It was the worst kind of tragedy; one that took the life of a child.
A childhood accident. There was no rationale. No-one to carry the blame.
Nothing to weigh the scale, no matter how futile or pathetic, against the appalling sense of loss.
Heartbreak and Helplessness
The family’s heartbreak washed across the community in waves of grief, settling on the school. Ashen students drifted in and out of classrooms like ghosts – there, but not really there.
In the aftermath of the accident, the community rallied behind the family – helping in small ways, protecting, letting them know they cared.
At the school, everyday, a teacher or counsellor would check on every child, one by one, with genuine kindness.
We watched our child grapple with the loss of a friend. We hugged him and wiped away the tears and told him everything would be alright. In time. But, there was nothing we could do for him. We couldn’t take away his pain or shelter him from the sadness. We couldn’t fill the void.
None of the parenting tricks we’d learned were of any use.
We were spectators. The sense of helplessness carried its own heartbreak.
Frustration and Surprise
From this frustrating vantage I saw something in my son and his friends that surprised me. It cut through the generational condescension that grows as we age – as we reframe the world to be a place where music is too loud, fashion too absurd and young people too lazy, entitled or superficial.
What I saw in the boys, challenged the way I saw Generation Z (born before 1997).
Perhaps because I assumed they were least prepared to cope with a tragedy. Perhaps because I serially underestimated them?
Grief and Mateship
The students cried together, held each other and grieved. Sometimes they agonised at the senselessness of the accident. Sometimes they just sat in silence, together.
Our son and his friends, the ones closest to the tragedy, banded together.
When they met, they embraced with empathy and openness. They gathered at one another’s homes to be together. Even if just to sit in silence.
At one of the sleep-overs in the days after the tragedy, the boys decided to talk through the accident as a group. They asked the adults and the younger kids to leave. They talked for an hour or more – dissecting, sorting, venting – until no-one had anything left to say.
I marvelled at how mature they were, and at their strength of character.
I was struck by the authentic relationships they had built with one another.
And how they were not afraid to be vulnerable and to grieve out loud.
The boys of Generation X, at least in my part of the world, would have done the opposite.
We would have grieved alone and emerged when we were sure we could face our friends without any show of emotion.
We grew up thinking emotion was weakness, and weakness was unmanly.
So we buried deep the things that hurt us when we were young. And they never left us. We dragged them around like a burlap bag of bones. The bag grew heavier over time, and it made us angry. Because anger was the only emotion we ‘men’ were allowed.
It took decades to purge this culturally stagnate view of manhood.
Some of us never did.
We can only speculate why Generation Z is emerging as such a mature, well-adjusted generation.
The three big influences on their childhood – digitalisation, a seemingly unsafe world and the global financial meltdown – may have matured our children faster than us.
Generation Z are digital natives, having since birth had the total knowledge of humankind literally in the palm of their hands. They are more knowledgeable and information savvy than us (at their age).
We should not kid ourselves that they have confined their explorations of the internet to cat videos. Gen Z has been exposed to more vision of the darker side of the human condition than any other generation, except those that witnessed the horrors of the world wars.
Generation Z has never known a world that feels safe. They were born in the settling dust of the fall of the Twin Towers and raised during the mad years of the rise and fall of ISIS. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have played in the background of their youth. And the convulsions of the decline of the US, rise of China and resumption of Russia in its role as tormenter have coloured their perception of the world.
Generation Z has had to face financial insecurity early in life. Having grown up with the global financial crisis and the decade-long belt-tightening that followed, Gen Z is more future-focussed and financially concerned than previous generations.
Courage and Hope
While these influences have seen Gen Z grow up quick, they have also connected them to the world and inspired them to change it.
Raised with powerful handheld computers, Gen Z is plugged into a world of possibilities.
They have seen the meteoric growth of technology start-ups and social movements. They have watched them emerge from the barrier-less digital world where a person, a computer and an idea can change the way people think and act.
Back in our little community, the students are still coming to terms with the accident.
There is a long way to go yet.
But we are proud of our son and his mates for how they handled a tragedy that has no place among the young.
It could have overwhelmed them, but instead it made them stronger as they rose to their full height and stood together.
Mature beyond their years.
A generation to which we are fortunate to leave our ailing world.